The Fight to End Hair Discrimination and Pass the CROWN Act Is the Fight for Racial Equity, Advocates Say

Joy Collective
Sen. Holly Mitchell holding up the signed bill for the first CROWN Act that passed in California, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom July 3, 2019.Joy Collective

Orlena Nwokah Blanchard, the president of JOY Collective, said the idea for the Crown Act came about because hair discrimination isn’t just about bias, but also civil rights.

Iyani Hughes, an on-air reporter, started Curly Girls On Air because she wanted to combat the stereotype that natural hair is “unprofessional.” Hughes said that after facing hair discrimination of her own as a Black woman in corporate America, she wanted to create a place of encouragement for on-air reporters who choose to wear their naturally.

“I choose to wear my hair natural on air to honor my natural beauty with authenticity. Representation matters in all capacities, the journey, the acceptance and the celebration,” one member of the group wrote this week. “I want to be a part of the change I want to see in media and make space for the generations coming after me to find their success naturally. I appreciate you!”

Hughes, who now works in Atlanta, Georgia, had a hard time obtaining a job after college as well because of her hair, she told Inside Edition Digital. It took her more than a year and a half to be hired.

“Employers would always say, "Oh, you are so good, but are you willing to change your hair?”” Hughes said. “Even when I was in school and did my reels for the college projects and stuff, the professors would always ask me, 'Do you plan on doing something with your hair?' That was discouraging, especially being, 21, 22 years old. Nobody wants to hear, 'You're not going to be successful because of the way you look.'”

Hughes is just one of many Black people who feel hair has been an issue in the workplace. It’s a common trend seen in headlines and more recently, court cases.

In 2010, a Black woman, Chastity Jones, had a job offer as a customer service representative at Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) revoked when she refused to cut her dreadlocks. The company’s hiring manager allegedly told Jones that dreadlocks “tend to get messy.” In 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Jones, claiming that the company’s denial to allow Jones to wear her hair in dreadlocks was a civil rights violation. They lost.

Attorneys for CMS denied that the EEOC's claims were valid. 

"Race discrimination is unlawful and deplorable because it conditions employment on a factor unrelated to the job and entirely outside of the employee's or applicant's control. In contrast, employees and applicants--regardless of race--can control their dress, makeup, and hair styling," a motion from CMS states.

The case was dismissed. The federal court said that a plaintiff claiming racial discrimination against an employer had to show that the employer’s bias was based on traits that a person cannot change, like skin color, but, it said, a hairstyle didn’t fit into that category because it was something a person could change.

In 2016, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.

“We obviously felt when we took the case that there was cause to believe Ms. Jones was subject to race discrimination,” the case’s lead attorney, Marsha Rucker, told Inside Edition Digital. “We do believe, based upon our guidance, and based on this case in Catastrophe Management, that hair is an indication of race and that folks should be allowed to wear their natural hair. And when they're not, it can be discriminatory under Title VII.”

The NAACP later tried to get the case in front of the Supreme Court, but they declined to hear it.

In 2019, Brittany Noble Jones, a journalist in Mississippi, claimed she was told her hair was “unprofessional” at her job at WJTV-TV and reportedly filed complaints at work and one with the EEOC. She was later fired and Jones maintains that it's because she complained about her treatment, but the company said it was because of her "excessive absenteeism and for her failure to return to work and fulfill her contractual responsibilities after exhausting all available leave time." 

Jones had to take some time off work at the time to care for her sick grandfather, she said.

The fight to end hair discrimination in the workplace is a national one, with many leaders hoping to see The Crown Act passed in all 50 states. The Crown Act is a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination, including the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of a person’s hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots.

In 2019, The Crown Act Coalition alongside Dove and Joy Collective commissioned a survey that found that Black women are 80% more likely than other women to agree with the statement, “I have to change my hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.” The survey also found that Black women are told about a company’s grooming policy much earlier than their white counterparts, usually during their interview process and before they know whether they will be hired.

Orlena Nwokah Blanchard, the president of JOY Collective, said the idea for The Crown Act came about because hair discrimination isn’t just about bias, but also civil rights.

“It was about discrimination that prevented people from having economic opportunities or educational opportunities. So, we actually came up with the idea of doing legislation,” Nwokah Blanchard said

California was the first state to pass the law in June 2019, and since then it has been passed in six other states and 15 municipalities. On Sept. 21, 2020, The Crown Act was passed by the House of Representatives. It is now waiting to be considered by the Senate.  

For many, it’s clear that hair discrimination is rooted in racism.

“It goes back to history and African American history and from the very first time when slaves were brought to the shores of America, where their heads were either shaved to remove their cultural identity and connections, or when they were forced to use head coverings or scarves to denote that they were a member of a lower class or caste system,” Nwokah Blanchard said. “And so using our hair against us is consistent and congruent with the history of weaponizing or demonizing blackness in this country.”

Nwokah Blanchard said the Crown Coalition and Joy Collective are hoping reconciling these “racial inequities” will become an important agenda item for the new administration. “We are working very hard to see that the Federal bill comes up in the Senate this year,” Nwokah Blanchard said.

And now more than ever, Nwokah Blanchard said, it is time to “right the wrongs of the past.”

“What I think the past year has shown us, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement last year becoming a global movement," she said, "And even what happened Jan. 6 in this country, it has really shown us that we're not past this by any means.”