The day before the Fourth of July, there’s another celebration that’s less well known: Black Hair Independence Day.
It’s still legal in most states for schools and employers to force Black people to change their hairstyle or deny them opportunities based on their hair. But since 2018, there’s been a movement to get states to pass the CROWN Act, a law that prohibits racial discrimination based on hairstyle, including locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, and Afros. So far, 17 states have passed such legislation; but this weekend, activists are pushing to do more, including passing a law at the federal level.
Black Hair Independence Day commemorates the signing of the first CROWN Act in California on July 3, 2019. (CROWN is an acronym for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair.) Since then, 16 more states have signed on, including Massachusetts, New York, and, most recently, Louisiana.
This weekend, an alliance of organizations called the CROWN Coalition—which includes the National Urban League, Color of Change, and the personal care brand Dove—is organizing a big event in New Orleans to celebrate these wins and educate the public about why these laws are important.
The Extensions That Started a Movement
Celebrating in New Orleans is meaningful, says Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, because it was an incident in Louisiana that spurred this movement. In 2018, 11-year-old Faith Fennidy was sent home from her private school in a New Orleans suburb because she wore extensions, thereby breaking a rule that prohibited students from wearing “extensions, clip-ins, or weaves.” Her brother posted a Facebook message arguing that these rules targeted Black students and failed to understand how important these hairstyles are to them. Faith’s extensions, he said, made her hair easier to maintain, allowing her to go swimming without having to redo her hair every night.
Fennidy’s story went viral, and it spurred activists to fight for legislation that would make it illegal for any organization—even private schools and businesses—to dictate how people wear their hair. Fennidy’s experience is the norm for many Black women and girls. Dove commissioned research for the CROWN Coalition and found 100% of Black elementary school girls in majority-white schools reported experiencing hair discrimination by the age of 10. In a survey of 2,000 Black and white women in the workplace, Dove found that Black women are 30% more likely to be made aware of a formal appearance policy, Black women’s hair is 3.4 times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional, and they are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from their job because of their hair.
In 2019, the CROWN Coalition was organized to push for laws that would prevent this kind of discrimination. “It’s important that our movement centers around creating legislation,” says Morial. “We can’t create real change unless there are legal protections.” Morial says the movement has come a long way in four years. But there are still 33 states that haven’t passed the CROWN Act, and the coalition is currently making a big push in 10 of them, including Alaska, Rhode Island, Kentucky, and Missouri.
In March, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 235-189 to pass the CROWN Act, which would ban hair discrimination in employment, and against those participating in federally assisted programs and public housing. Now, it’s waiting to be taken up by the Senate, where the bill is sponsored by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and with support from the Biden administration. Morial says it tends to take a long time for bills to work their way through the Senate, and it will take work to convince lawmakers of the importance of this legislation.
It’s Not About Fashion
As the coalition continues its outreach, Morial says some argue that hair is simply about fashion or personal style, and organizations should have a right to dictate hairstyle as part of a uniform. Esi Eggleston Bracey, EVP and COO of beauty and personal care at Dove’s parent company Unilever, says that for Black people, hair is an important marker of identity. “Hair has deep roots in African societies, where it was a sacred cultural and spiritual symbol,” she says. “How you wrapped, braided, or styled your hair reflected what tribe or community you came from.”
Black people have been forced to change their hair all the way back to slavery. Many enslaved people were forced to shave their heads, hide their hair with rags, or wear wigs. “We had to hide our heritage,” Bracey says. “Asking us to change our hair from its natural state—the way that it grows out of our head—was an inherent suppression of our identity.”
Morial says even in the 21st century, schools and employers have prevented Black people from wearing their hair naturally, saying that an Afro looks unprofessional. And even if there aren’t overt rules forcing Black people to change their hairstyle, there are social and cultural forces that compel them to do so. In some cases, he says, Black people simply get passed over for opportunities by schools and employers because of their hairstyle.
This kind of everyday racism places a tax on Black people. “It’s time-consuming and expensive to straighten your hair to make it look more like white hair,” Bracey says, pointing out that the various methods of straightening hair can be harmful, from using toxic chemicals to irons that can burn. “I remember getting my hair pressed as a child, and my ears would get burned,” she says. “I’d have scabs from trying to change my hair from its natural state.”
As more people understand the seriousness of hair discrimination, the coalition hopes that individuals will be inspired to act. On its website, it’s making it easy for people to email their senators and state legislators, as well as sign a petition. “This is about our inherent traits and society forcing us to conform to narrow Eurocentric standards of beauty,” Bracey says. “And when we can’t access education, or income and employment because of our natural traits, that’s a violation of our civil rights.”