By LaKeshia Myers
For the majority of my life, I have worn my natural hair, meaning it was absent of any chemicals. As a child, my mother, aunt, and I engaged in the bi-weekly ritual of shampooing and blow drying my hair; after which I would, for what seemed like hours, sit in front of the stove waiting for the pressing comb to heat up and begin the task of straightening my hair. Around the age of twelve, this undertaking was given to my beloved hairdresser, Ms. Willie Jean Davis, who ensured my hair was bone straight and my bangs were teased to perfection.
When I entered college, I relaxed my hair to make managing it easier. I happily traded in bi-weekly shampoos, blow drying, and straightening combs for low maintenance styling routines that I could perform myself and “touch ups”, which meant having relaxer reapplied to new hair growth every eight weeks—having the relaxer manipulated my naturally curly hair pattern, making it straight, and malleable.
As I grew older, I began to understand the negative effects of chemical application to my hair and reverted back to wearing it naturally, and opting instead for a silk press. As I entered the workforce, it was not lost on me that straightening my hair could also impact my job prospects.
The history of our nation is riddled with laws and societal norms that equated “blackness,” and the associated physical traits of dark skin, kinky/curly hair to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment. This idea also permeated societal understanding of professionalism.
Professionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.
Despite the great strides American society and the legal system have made to reverse the racist ideology that Black traits are inferior, hair remains a rampant source of racial discrimination with serious economic and health consequences, especially for Black people. Workplace dress codes and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locs, have a disparate impact on Black individuals as these policies are more likely to deter Black applicants and burden or punish Black employees than any other group.
It was after hearing of the successful passage of the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair) Act in California, that I decided to spearhead the movement to change Wisconsin’s state statutes to allow natural and protective styles in the workplace. While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, and color, there is no legal precedent in state or federal statute to protect individuals against discrimination based on natural hair texture and styles. By specifying in statute that the protected class of race also includes traits historically associated with racial identification, such as hair texture and protective hairstyles, the CROWN Act would ensure defense against grooming policies that often affect people of color.
Currently, the federal courts protect the ability of an afro to be worn in the workplace. The courts do not recognize that afros are not the only natural presentation of Black hair. Black hair can also be naturally presented in braids, twists, and locs. There have been many documented instances where employers and schools have discriminated against employees and students because of their natural hair.
Recently, a New Jersey student athlete was threatened with disqualification at a wrestling match due to his wearing of locs. The image of the student having his hair cut in the middle of the competition went viral and calls were made for the referee who initiated the haircut to be fired.
In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race, and whether they were a second-class citizen, hair remained a proxy for race. Therefore, hair discrimination is racial discrimination.
I feel it is necessary for all people to be affirmed and accepted for who they are. As black people, our natural hair textures have often been weaponized and used as a tool of rejection when seeking or maintaining employment. Natural textures are just that—natural, it is the way one’s hair grows from the scalp.
As our state continues to grow more diverse, our laws must adapt to fit the times in which we live.
Enacting the CROWN Act would be a step forward in ensuring equitable hiring and employment practices in the state of Wisconsin.