Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

When is a hairstyle not just a hairstyle? When it’s a pretext for discrimination.

July 5th, 2019 | Stephanie Griffith

African Americans in particular find that their afros, cornrows and dreadlocks are held against them at school and when applying for jobs.

Employers in California no longer will be allowed to reject job candidates because they dislike their curls, coils, kinks or locks, after the governor signed a first-of-its-kind bill outlawing hair discrimination.

The new measure, signed Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), bans discrimination against a job candidate or school applicant for wearing natural hairstyles.

“There’s a human element to this. We don’t want to diminish people, we don’t want to demean people … We have to own up to the sins of the past,” Newsom said. “I hope that folks are paying attention all across this country.”

The bill was approved unanimously in both the California House and Senate.

The text of the measure states that throughout its history the United States has been “riddled with laws and societal norms that equated ‘blackness,’ and the associated physical traits, for example, dark skin, kinky and curly hair to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment.”

The issue is a particularly fraught one for African Americans who have been expected to style their hair to conform with Caucasian norms of beauty or acceptability, especially in the workplace.

“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,” the text of the legislation said.

Discrimination over her dreadlocks led Chastity Jones to fight a 10-year legal battle with an employer who fired her because she refused to get rid of the hairstyle. “It had nothing to do with the job,” she said. “It just had everything to do with my hair.”

Jones sued in 2013 for discrimination and lost wages, but her was dismissed by the court. The NAACP filed a petition last year on her behalf to the Supreme Court, but it declined to take the case.

And it has not just been a problem for workers: Last August, Louisiana sixth grader Faith Fennidy was kicked off the grounds of her Catholic school because her hair, neatly parted and swept back into braided ponytails, violated school policy.

ThinkProgress readers might also recall the case of Andrew Johnson, the high school wrestler in New Jersey who was told in December that he would have to submit to having his dreadlocks shorn off or forfeit the match.

California state Sen. Holly Mitchell introduced the anti-discrimination bill in her state, which extends the same protections that an individual would be afforded because of their skin color to their natural hairstyle and texture.

“The way the hair grows out of my head as a black woman is a trait of race,” Mitchell said, explaining the thinking behind her legislation, which has been dubbed the CROWN Act.

Reports say similar legislation is being considered in New Jersey and in New York, where a bill against discrimination on the basis of a person’s natural hair has passed both chambers of the state legislature and is awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Stephanie Griffith is a senior editor. She has worked as an editor and reporter for the Associated Press, The Washington Post, and Agence France-Presse, among other journalism gigs.

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