What Does The CROWN Act Mean For Black Women In The Workplace?

What Does The CROWN Act Mean For Black Women With Natural Hair In The Workplace?

(Image: iStock/dragana991)

In January 2020, California’s CROWN Act—CROWN being an acronym for “Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair”—went into effect. The law, which was championed by a Black female lawmaker in California with natural hair, explicitly bans discrimination against natural Black hairstyles, including cornrows, afros, braids, twists, and dreadlocks, in workplaces and public schools.

The law is nothing short of groundbreaking, as it speaks to a specifically nuanced and insidious form of discrimination. As of October 2020, a total of seven states had similar laws in effect. And in September 2020, the United States House of Representatives passed the CROWN Act there as well—the bill will now move along to the United States Senate.

In 2016, 4,000 people participated in a research survey, conducted by The Perception Institute, entitled The Good Hair Project.” The survey sought to determine if there still existed bias against Black women with natural hair. The results of the survey were disheartening—the survey found that the majority of participants in the survey, regardless of race and gender, held bias toward Black women based on their hairstyles and texture.

Such biases have played out in damaging ways, as many employers, in the past, have had grooming policies that discourage or outright ban natural Black hairstyles in the workplace. In 2014, the United States Army instituted a strict, written policy that restricted female soldiers from wearing most natural hairstyles including “twists, dreadlocks, afros and braids” while deployed. The policy went so far as to characterize these hairstyles in pejorative terms, calling the hairstyles “matted” and “unkempt.” The policy closed with a stark warning, stating that those women who did not follow these guidelines would be forced to cut these styles or wear wigs. Yes. This happened … in 2014. The policy has since been eliminated.

In 2019, Dove also conducted a study, entitled The CROWN Research Study. This study focused on women in the workplace, both Black and non-Black. Quite similar to The Good Hair Project, these results were startling. A whopping 80% of Black women surveyed said that they had changed their natural hair in order to fit in better within a corporate environment. And over 50% of Black women surveyed stated that they knew someone who had been actually sent home from work because of their hairstyle.

Kia Roberts

So what should naturalistas in California know about this law and how to ensure that they are not being discriminated against, in violation of this law? First, in states where the CROWN Act is law, employees should look at the written grooming policies that exist at their job or in their public school. Policies that ban braids, afros, and the like are no longer simply offensive—they are illegal.

If a person sees these prohibited policies, they should consider speaking to their human resources representative. The CROWN Coalition, which has been working diligently to get the CROWN Act made into law in multiple states, also recommends that people who feel like they have been a victim of hair discrimination contact their local ACLU  chapter. Second, employees should keep good documentation of the discrimination that they feel they are experiencing—noting dates, times, locations, and the content of the discriminatory behavior. These notes can be hugely helpful in case of an eventual lawsuit or visit with an ACLU lawyer. Third, employees should fully research what their options are for when they feel they have been discriminated against because of their natural hair. In some jurisdictions, a person doesn’t even have to hire a  lawyer to voice their concerns about the discrimination they have received—a complaint can be filed with city or state Human Rights Commissions to seek justice.

Employees with natural hair need to be diligent about closely monitoring potentially loaded and significant descriptions that their managers might use in conversation with them. For example, a manager that describes their employee’s natural hairstyle as “unprofessional”, “inappropriate”, or “messy” is potentially using code words for conveying the sentiment that Black natural hair is undesirable. The inclination of management to buy into Eurocentric standards of beauty and desirability is the root from which discriminatory hair policies sprouted. Employees with natural hair should take care to document comments, demotions, and jokes made about their hair because they are potentially violative of the law.

In 2015, Giuliana Rancic, host of E’s television show Fashion Police, infamously mocked actress Zendaya’s locked hairstyle at an awards ceremony, stating that Zendaya’s hair looked like it smelled of “patchouli oil and weed”. The backlash to her ignorant statement was swift and heavy, with Rancic being forced to apologize. The CROWN Act is doing significant work toward ensuring that others do not continue to feel emboldened to make these offensive statements, and moreover, to engage in discriminatory behavior based on their biases.

Kia Roberts is the Founder and Principal of Triangle Investigations, an investigations group dedicated to conducting confidential fact-finding investigations with sensitivity, attention to detail, and with the assistance of tech. The former Director of Investigations for the NFL and a former Senior Assistant District Attorney in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, New York, Kia obtained her law degree from Vanderbilt University Law School and her undergraduate degree from Duke University.