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City joins effort to end hair-based discrimination

Wednesday, March 30, 2022 by Willow Higgins

The city of Austin and its Office of Civil Rights are initiating a discussion about how to prevent race-based hair discrimination, which is most commonly experienced by women of color.

The CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, is a piece of legislation that prohibits discrimination based on a person’s hair style or texture. The legislation, which was first passed in California and adopted in several other states, initiated a national movement to encourage Black people to embrace their natural hair, including locs, braids, curls and bantu knots, rather than feeling the social pressure to apply chemicals to straighten their hair. 

While both the state of Texas and the city of Austin could join the coalition of cities and municipalities to pass their own version of the CROWN Act, the legislation may succeed on the federal level as well. Last week, the House of Representatives approved the bill 235-189, and the bill now heads to the U.S. Senate.

The civil rights office discussed the CROWN Act this month during a listening session for the community. Angel Carroll from Measure, a local organization that uses data to fight structural racism, described the history behind the movement.

“The practice of changing natural hair began around the time of slavery for people of color,” Carroll said. “Slaves wore headscarves, braided their hair in patterns to keep it protected and (hide) food while they were subject to cruel and inhumane conditions. As the 1800s came to an end, more Black people entered the workforce world and felt pressured to conform to mainstream hair styles worn by white women.”

“In the 2010s, there was an increased celebration of our natural hair. But that popularity resulted in increased attention to dress code and hair regulation as African American workers and students across the U.S. were subjected to punishment due to celebrating and wearing their natural hair,” she continued.

In practice, this discrimination is seen today in policies requiring employees to have “clean or tidy hair,” or in grooming policies that require tame hair, but only discipline workers who are Black and wear their hair naturally.

Currently, this type of discrimination is legal in areas that do not have explicit laws preventing it – in theory, an employer could fire or demote a worker just for having natural hair. That’s what the CROWN Act is seeking to change, Carroll explained. 

Dove, which co-founded the CROWN Coalition, has piloted research showing how glaring the problem is. Two-thirds of Black girls at schools with populations that are majority white reported race-based hair discrimination, and all of the girls said it happened before the age of 10. The research shows Black women are 80 percent more likely than white women to change their hair to meet social norms at work. 

During Austin’s civil rights listening session, the facilitators conducted a poll to see if respondents experience race-based hair discrimination. Fifty-seven percent of poll respondents said they felt they were treated differently when they were wearing their natural hair or a protective hair style.

Sign a petition to end hair-based discrimination.

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