California is close to passing a bill to expand its anti-discrimination laws to include protections against racial discrimination on the basis of natural hair.
Having been already approved by the State Senate in April, the measure was passed unanimously in the State Assembly in late June. The bill now awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature to become law.
“In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race, and whether they were a second-class citizen, hair today remains a proxy for race. Therefore, hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination,” the bill reads.
Called the Crown Act — an acronym for “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair” — the bill was first introduced by Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, a black woman who wears her hair naturally on a daily basis.
Mitchell said that she has been contacted by many members of the black community who have shared traumatic stories of them or their children being targeted on account of their hair textures or style.
"I have heard far too many reports of black children humiliated and sent home from school because their natural hair was deemed unruly or a distraction to others,” Mitchell said.
The bill will expand the definition of race to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles,” and would help eliminate the various ways that discrimination disproportionately affects people of color in the workplace and in schools.
“This is a fundamental issue of personal dignity and personal rights,” Mitchell said in an interview on Friday. “This bill has truly struck a deeply personal chord with people because there is something so deeply personally offensive when you are told that your hair, in its natural state, is not acceptable in the workplace.”
While there are laws that provide protections for religious hairstyles and headwear, federal courts have previously ruled that current racial discrimination laws only protect African Americans wearing their hair in afros against “hair discrimination.” According to the courts, these laws do not cover other natural hairstyles or hair worn in braids, twists, or locks. This bill will change that in the state of California.
California Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager-Dove told NBC News that the bill is meant to increase public awareness of the unique characteristics of natural black hair and challenge the Eurocentric beauty standards on which professional dress codes are often based.
“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 bill states.
To comply with these notions of acceptable professional appearance, African American men and women are forced to straighten their hair with chemicals that scientists have found can cause uterine fibroids, cancer, and other serious medical conditions. Less damaging options, such as weaves or wigs, can cost thousands of dollars for quality products.
Students of color are increasingly speaking out about discrimination in schools, where their natural hair textures and styles are considered dress code violations. This can negatively impact the education of these students, Patricia Okonta, a legal fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told NBC News, especially if they are suspended or have to transfer schools due to these exclusionary dress codes.
The Crown Act will now protect affected students and employees by requiring schools and companies to be more expansive and inclusive in their policies.
Kamlager-Dove said she believes the move could set a precedent for other states, and she may be right. New Jersey is likely to be the next state to adopt a similar measure — a bill proposing discrimination on the basis of hair in the workplace, housing, and public schools be outlawed was introduced last week.
California will become the first state in the US to pass such a law, but it’s not the first place in the country to do so. New York City residents became the first to reap the benefits of such regulation in Februrary, when the New York City Commission on Human Rights instituted a ban on discrimination on the basis of hair textures or hairstyles in the workplace, schools, and other facilites open to the public.
"I believe that any law, policy or practice that sanctions a job description that immediately excludes me from a profession,” Mitchell said, “not because of my capacity or my capabilities or my experience but because of my hairstyle choice is long overdue for reform.”