SAN FRANCISCO — California on Wednesday became the first state to protect citizens from discrimination based on hair style, a law that is being greeted with both enthusiasm and a touch of dismay by people of color.
“I’m not going to say we shouldn’t have a law that allows us to wear our hair the way it naturally is, but it’s also sad that in 2019 we have to have one in the first place,” said Tiffany Dena Loftin, youth and college director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” she said, noting that the NAACP has been monitoring cases in which there has been discrimination based on a natural hair style. “But a piece of paper doesn’t change things overnight. There’s a stigma often associated with the natural hair of black and brown people that needs to change.”
In signing Senate Bill 188 just before the Fourth of July, California Gov. Gavin Newsomhas created the nation’s first law that will make it more difficult for employers and schools to penalize individuals for wearing their hair in a non-European style, which could include cornrows, Afros or dreadlocks.
SB188, also known as The Crown Act: Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair, becomes law in the wake of a variety of incidents nationwide that has put a spotlight on the issue.
Although the military has retracted bans on natural hair in the recent years, last summer a 6-year-old boy in Florida was denied entry to his school because of his dreadlocks, and earlier this year New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson was forced to cut his dreadlocks ringside before being allowed to compete.
And an Alabama woman is asking the Supreme Court to weigh in on her long-running case resulting from her firing from a call center job in 2010 because she refused to cut her dreadlocks.
“When is enough going to be enough,” Clinton Stanley Sr., the father of the Florida 6-year-old, wrote USA TODAY in an email. “What all do we have to go through for people to know that we have a right to human rights? It’s crazy that in 2019 that children cannot get an education because of their hair.”
California law could set national precedent
Patricia Okonta, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has been working on Stanley’s case, but she says the offending school, A Book’s Christian Academy in Apopka, Florida, has yet to change its policies. Stanley’s son has since changed schools.
“Bills like the one in California send an important message that hair policing shouldn’t be tolerated, and can be a model for other states,” says Okonta. “There’s a long history here, one that associates our natural style with being unkempt or unclean or unprofessional, and that needs to be tackled. Allowing someone to grow their hair out of their head the way they want to should be fine.”
California State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), the author of SB 188, said she recently was cleaning her house when she stumbled across photos of herself during her high school graduation in the early 1980s.
“I had my hair in natural braids, and it dawned on me that that’s the way I had my hair all throughout high school, without any issues,” says Mitchell. “Now, had I been made to feel badly about the way I had my hair, that could have easily impacted my school experience in a negative way.”
Mitchell, who continues to wear her hair in braids, said her bill, now law, is simply meant to prevent people of color from being “victims of a Eurocentric view of beauty and professionalism.”
A law that protects people showcasing natural hairstyles from discrimination comes at a time when a growing number of celebrities from the worlds of sports and entertainment are opting for such styles.
These include actress Lupita Nyong’o, who wears her hair in a short afro; NFL free agent Chris Ivory, whose dreadlocks are often a tempting way for opponents to tackle him; and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who wears her locks in twists.
Straightening poses health risks
“We shouldn’t have to sacrifice our hair, or our health, to conform to non-natural hair, because standards have been changing,” says Ama Karikari-Yawson, founder of MilesTales, a consultancy that works on diversity training in schools and business settings.
Karikari-Yawson, who prefers to call natural hair by the term afro-textured hair, says the issue of hair discrimination goes beyond style and to health concerns. Between the use of irons and chemical relaxers, “many people I know, and myself included, have suffered burns on the scalp and hair that fell out and wouldn’t grow back.”
For decades now, Rosario Schuler has been touting the beauty and advantages of non-straight hairstyles for other people of color. The founder of Oh! My Nappy Hair, with salons in Atlanta and Los Angeles and Oakland in California, says SB 188 represents a big victory on her long road.
“We have all heard the stories about brothers and sisters who have been stigmatized because of their hair,” she says. “Years ago, I said to myself, one day I’ll be able to take a shower and get dressed and get out of the house with my hair the way it is naturally. And that day seems to have come.”