The CROWN Act Aims To Outlaw Discrimination Against Black Hairstyles

Supermajority Education Fund

February 14, 2020

Lawmakers across the country have been working in recent months to introduce and pass the CROWN Act, a law that would end discrimination against Black hairstyles in schools and workplaces. An acronym for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” the CROWN Act would protect Black Americans who chose to wear their hair in natural styles like Afros, dreadlocks, and cornrows.

Kansas, Washington, and Wisconsin have become the latest states to consider the legislation, which has already become law in California, New Jersey, and New York. The push to pass the CROWN Act received international attention Sunday when director Matthew A. Cherry mentioned its importance as he accepted his Academy Award for Best Animated Short for “Hair Love,” his moving film about a Black father learning to do his daughter’s hair.

Texas high school senior DeAndre Arnold, who recently learned he’d be prohibited from attending his graduation unless he cut his hair, attended the Academy Awards as Cherry’s guest. While Arnold’s story garnered worldwide press coverage, Michele L. Watley, the founder of the advocacy organization Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, told Supermajority News that his experience of facing severe consequences for wearing his natural hair is not an unusual one.

“There are a number of African Americans who can share stories about being told in professional and academic settings that they need to straighten or cut or change their hair,” she said. Last year a high school wrestler was forced to choose between cutting off his dreadlocks or forfeiting a competition, and in 2018 a Florida kindergartener was turned away on his first day of school because his hair was in locs. 

This discrimination is not limited to schools. Watley notes that Black women in particular often feel like they have no choice but to straighten their hair, particularly if they work in corporate settings. A 2019 study found that Black women were one and a half times more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair and that 80 percent felt they had to change their natural hair to fit in at the office.

“We have learned to conform to these standards to some level. But that in itself presents an undue burden on Black women,” Watley said. “I can’t roll out of bed and have straight hair. It is usually a very arduous process involving heat products or chemical relaxers.”

As Watley continues to meet with lawmakers to lobby for the CROWN Act, she said she has found that educating non-Black lawmakers about the issues surrounding natural hair is key. “Many didn’t have any concept of why this was an issue in the first place,” she said. “For me, it’s not complex. I live this every day. But if people reach out to those representing them and say ‘this is an issue and this is how it is impacting me,’ I think that is the most impactful way to get this passed.”