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The CROWN Act would ban hair texture discrimination in the U.S. These women say it’s long overdue

For some people of color, the legislation isn’t just a question of discrimination. It’s about protecting their culture.

Shenia Jackson didn’t intend to call attention to her hair.

As a college student, Jackson wore her hair in micro braids while she was in the process of transitioning from relaxed straight hair back to its natural curly state.

Emily Hernandez smiling
Victoria Crosdale
/
WUSF Public Media
USF student Emily Hernandez says the CROWN Act is long overdue.

“As a younger woman in a college environment, having much more aggressive remarks made about my hair, I wasn't quite sure how to handle it,” said Jackson, a natural hair advocate who owns an online apparel store. “So a lot of times I didn't say anything. I wasn't sure what kind of kickback I would get.”

She said those aggressive remarks even came from a professor, who told Jackson that she was “a girl who doesn’t know which side of her hair is the longest on which day.”

“He kind of nervously moved the conversation on to something else and made a joke: ‘You have those crazy hairstyles, but they look good on you,’ ” Jackson said. “I don't like the way it made me feel. It was embarrassing, but how much can I say? And at the end of the day, I needed to graduate.

“And we all stopped … I didn't even know what to say.”

USF student Emily Hernandez had a similar experience.

"I wore my hair in a puff, and my friends, too," Hernandez said. "The teachers would be like, 'It's distracting,' or the people behind you can't see. So next time, tuck it back and do a neat style."

It’s those types of comments that have prompted calls to create legislation that would ban discrimination based on hair styles.

About the CROWN Act

On March 18, the House of Representatives passed the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, a federal measure that would ban hair discrimination in schools and workplaces. It is now being reviewed by the Senate.

Similar hair discrimination bills have been considered in the Florida Legislature several times, but have yet to be enacted.

In this day and age, the fact that we need to legislate the way my hair grows out of my head is, you know ... I don't even have the words for that.
Shenia Jackson

Hernandez says this bill is long overdue.

“I think that the necessity for the CROWN Act is always so irritating. It's angering that we need a CROWN Act in the first place,” Hernandez said. “We can talk about hair, but then we also have to talk about why we have to talk about hair, which is race.

"It just angers me, but then, we need it. And I think the CROWN Act is so important."

Added Celyne McKenzie, a business owner and traveling hair braider: “I think it is an amazing idea … it's just a little frustrating that everyone else gets to enter the world the way they are.”

This facet of institutionalized racism has left many people of color questioning their natural appearances, wondering: Am I going to be judged because of my hair today? Will I be turned away? Will I be looked past by others?

Hernandez, who is working on her master’s degree in Women’s and Gender studies in the fall and plans to get a Ph.D. in Women’s Sexuality and Africana Studies, says she’s “grateful that I didn’t get peer pressured into regular things black girls go through with hair.”

Jackson said the CROWN Act is a good idea, but "at the same time, in this day and age, the fact that we need to legislate the way my hair grows out of my head is, you know ... I don't even have the words for that."

Celyne McKenzie smiling, sitting on a bench
Victoria Crosdale
/
WUSF Public Media
Celyne McKenzie said she's glad she "didn’t get peer pressured into regular things black girls go through with hair.”

A question of race

Still, Hernandez said, the issue of hair goes far beyond just the style.

“We can talk about hair, but then we also have to talk about why we have to talk about hair, which is race,” Hernandez said. “When Black women or Black men wear their hair a certain way or your edges aren't laid, or, you wear a weave and all that different stuff, it's like a reflection of our entire race.”

A new wave of understanding has been pushed to the forefront by the Natural Hair and Black Lives Matter movements. And other factors have caused a resurgence of Black people wearing their natural hair.

Hair braiding is “an art form, but it's also a protective way to keep what we got going, to protect what we naturally came to this earth with,” McKenzie said.

We can talk about hair, but then we also have to talk about why we have to talk about hair, which is race.
Celyne McKenzie

Hair textures are categorized on a scale from straight and fine (1A) to curly and coarse (4C). Landing higher on the spectrum, Black hair tends to be very thick, dry and difficult to manage.

Protective styles are more than just cosmetic. Locks, braids, twists and weaves keep curly hair safe from the damages that come with constant maintenance.

Instead of celebrating these differences, Black people are expected to meet the demands of straight hair. and straightening Black hair is no easy task — both physically and financially.

A painful, and expensive, process

At age 8, Hernandez remembers having her hair straightened for her first communion.

“My hair was very long and very thick. And my parents were like, we need to make your hair look good” Hernandez said. “I had to sit in the kitchen and have my hair hot combed, which burns your scalp … there should never be something so hot near your scalp.”

She reflected on how it felt having to meet the societal standard of straight hair.

Shenia Jackson looking into a camera
Victoria Crosdale
/
WUSF Public Media
Said Shenia Jackson: "For each individual, CROWN Act or no CROWN Act, you're going to have to celebrate who you are."

“Just feeling like you fit in, which is one of … it's a human thing to want to fit in,” Hernandez said.

“It's kind of difficult,” McKenzie said. “Because when it comes to black hair, you're always going to experience some form of damage because our hair is so special and unique.”

Relaxer is a chemical product that straightens curly hair patterns. As noted in an article from hairclub.com, “This process leaves the hair weak, brittle and prone to breakage. It can even burn your skin, cause permanent damage to the scalp and lead to hair loss.”

In addition, other research shows:

  • Global marketing research firm Mintel valued the Black hair care industry at about $2.5 billion.
  • A 2019 article from Nielsen stated that “African Americans dominate the ethnic hair and beauty aids category, accounting for almost 90% of the overall spend.”
  • As of 2021, Neilsen reported that African-Americans are “2.4 times more likely to buy hair treatments compared to the average beauty shopper.”

McKenzie says it’s “disheartening” and she’s “not surprised at all” that the CROWN Act has yet to pass. But, she says, “the tides are changing.”
Still, the passage would not only provide some freedom in how people of color can legally present themselves in schools and workplaces, but it would give them the freedom to reflect their culture — and to be themselves.

“Black people, we're starting to own a lot of things and we're having a lot of thriving businesses,” McKenzie said. “And in those businesses, we're going to hire people regardless of what they look like.”

Added Jackson: "A few comments were made, and it would have been nice to have someone say, 'Don't worry about it. It's just a moment in time' and it doesn't reflect your entire experience. And I think for each individual, CROWN Act or no CROWN Act, you're going to have to celebrate who you are."

I am the WUSF Rush Family Multimedia Intern for spring 2022.