California bans bias against black people based on natural hairstyles


SACRAMENTO — California became the first state in the nation Wednesday to ban discrimination against black employees and students based on their natural hairstyles.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB188 by state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, in a ceremony in his office. The bill amends state anti-discrimination and education codes to include hair characteristics tied to race as a protected class.

Supporters say the bill is necessary because many employers and school districts have “Eurocentric” policies that prohibit hairstyles historically associated with African Americans, including braids, locks and twists.

They say such policies treat traits associated with African Americans, such as kinky or curly hair, as a “badge of inferiority” and can lead people to take unhealthy steps to alter their natural hair texture.

Fritz Clay, a San Francisco hairdresser whose salon specializes in natural styles, said he supported the bill because he’s heard countless stories in his 35 years behind the chair about the pressures black women face to straighten their hair.

Clay, a biracial African American, said he’ll never forget the 10 years he wore his hair in dreadlocks and noticed drivers locking their car doors as he crossed the street.

“I was treated completely different with dreads, the same person,” Clay said.

Newsom said Wednesday that he gained a new “consciousness” about the issue last year after he saw a viral video of a New Jersey teenager having his dreadlocks cut off with shears before a high school wrestling match.

The referee had given Andrew Johnson an ultimatum: Cut your hair or don’t participate.

“His dignity being exposed, his decision, whether or not to lose an athletic competition or lose his identity, came into ... stark terms for millions of Americans that have never had that voice fixated,” Newsom said. “It still is fixated in my mind.”

The bill passed both chambers of the Legislature with unanimous support, although about a dozen lawmakers didn’t vote.

Mitchell said that while there was no formal opposition, she was stunned by reactions on social media when the bill passed the Senate. Many people responded to her tweet with critical comments, some of them racist.

“Who decided straight hair is professional?” asked Mitchell, whose hair has been styled in rolled locks for 15 years. “There is nothing unprofessional about my look.”

She said the bill is necessary because courts don’t consider race when evaluating whether it is discriminatory for an employer to ban certain hairstyles.

The bill, known as the CROWN Act, says traditional notions of “professionalism” are “closely linked to European features and mannerisms, meaning those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.”

Federal law already prohibits discrimination against people with Afro hairstyles, but not hairstyles that many African Americans wear, such as braids, locks and twists.

Tina Opie, an associate professor at Babson College in Massachusetts, has studied workplace policies related to authenticity and natural hair for a decade. She said that while many companies have seemingly innocuous rules, words like “classic, clean, polished and professional” are often interpreted in discriminatory ways.

“My question is, classic for whom?” Opie said. “It’s really important for organizations to draw a line between grooming, which all of us should do, and identity alternation.”

She said policies that force black people to alter their natural hair can harm their physical and mental health. Many chemical hair straighteners and relaxers contain ingredients that increase the risk of various cancers.

Other methods, such as hot combs and flat irons, can cause serious burns or permanently damage hair, if used incorrectly.

Opie said there are also psychological costs to policies that force people to alter their textured hair. She said someone who changes appearance to conform to a racial notion of beauty may feel inauthentic.

Aziza Crowder, 22, a student at Merritt College in Oakland, said she learned firsthand the pressure to conform after she started wearing her hair naturally as a preteen.

When she was in high school, Crowder worked as a hostess at a pizza parlor where, she said, the comments about her appearance were grating: “Customers would ask, Why don’t I straighten my hair? Wouldn’t it look better straight?”

Crowder, a biracial African American, said she wore her hair in natural buns, braids and twists. She said she forged friendships with other black women who embraced their natural hair.

“We’ve been stigmatized by others in society so much that we tend to try to blend in, but we’re not made to,” she said. “It’s very empowering.”