Black Hairstyles Need Protection
Bloomberg Businessweek|October 18 - 25, 2021
In most U.S. states, employers and schools are allowed to discriminate against box braids, locs, and other traditional styles. A coalition of activists and legislators has started to change that.
By Patrice Peck

Four years ago, when Faith Fennidy was 10, her mother called her down to the living room to watch something that seemed crazy. On TV was a report about Deanna and Mya Cook, 15-year-old twin sisters in Massachusetts whose school had given them detention, threatened them with suspension, and banned them from track meets, Latin club, and the prom—all for braiding their hair. The twins were wearing the simple box braids ubiquitous among generations of Black women and girls, Fennidy included. Often done using extensions, they’re a staple Black hairstyle, because they help protect hair from damage as it grows and are relatively easy to maintain. The sisters’ charter school said it had punished the girls because its policies on student hair and makeup forbid extensions.

Faith recalls watching the news report in a daze, shocked that hair like hers could lead to such punishment. At the time, the story made the Cooks’ charter school in Malden, Mass., sound very far away from her Catholic elementary school in Terrytown, La. “I don’t think I would have ever believed that it would have happened to me,” she says.

But a year later, it did. Faith’s school amended its dress code to ban hair extensions in similarly neutral-sounding terms, and soon she was sent home for the day for violating the policy. A clip of her leaving school in tears went viral, and a still from the video appeared in the New York Times. “I was just so upset in that moment,” she recalls. She transferred schools.

Faith, like the Cooks, had joined a fresh wave of Black students and workers over the past several years who were being rejected, punished, or fired for wearing traditionally Black hairstyles, such as cornrows and locs, also known as dreadlocks. Dress codes have been used to justify blocking students from their first day of kindergarten and from walking in their high school graduation ceremony. In Des Moines, a trucking company dismissed a recent hire who wouldn’t cut his locs during training, claiming they posed a safety issue. But more often, employers say they just don’t like the look. In White Plains, N.Y., a Banana Republic manager refused to schedule shifts for an employee until she removed her box braids, which he deemed unkempt. In Arlington, teens who refused to cut their braids and locs were denied jobs at Six Flags Over Texas, where until 2017 the namesake banners included the flag of the Confederacy.

In some of these cases, the amplifying effect of social media has shamed employers or schools into reversing the decisions. Following national backlashes, Faith’s former school, Christ the King Parish School, eventually rescinded its hair policy. So did Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, where the Cooks went. Banana Republic fired the offending manager and said it has zero tolerance for discrimination. On the other hand, Six Flags didn’t hire the long-haired teens (it tries to accommodate workers on a case-by-case basis), and the Des Moines trucking company, TMC Transportation, maintained that its trainee’s locs violated its safety policies by rendering him unable to wear a hard hat properly, a claim the trainee denied. Throughout the U.S., these kinds of issues continue to pop up, whack-a-mole style, showing how Black Americans regularly face discrimination that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the laws protecting their rights in the workplace.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits explicit discrimination by employers and public schools on the basis of traits the law considers immutable—unchangeable from birth—such as race and color. But the language doesn’t explicitly ban discrimination against mutable traits, leaving many common, implicit forms of discrimination to be adjudicated by the courts. For decades, workplaces have argued, mostly successfully, that hairstyles predominantly worn by Black people are merely cultural practices and should be subject to change by employers or school administrators. The federal judiciary has so far protected only the afro, which was deemed an immutable racial characteristic in 1976. This discrepancy is absurd at best: Not all Black people have afros, and people who aren’t Black can have natural afros, or brown skin, for that matter.

Lawmakers and judges have a ways to go to catch up to the reality that race is a social construct, says Wendy Greene, a law professor at Drexel University who’s advised efforts to outlaw discrimination against natural hair. “There’s a very limited understanding of what constitutes race and therefore a very, very constrained and limited understanding of what constitutes unlawful race discrimination,” she says. “I call this legal fiction.”

This limited understanding extends to the nuances of Black hair, from its rich history and culture to its morphological differences. Simply combing my hair requires water, a palmful of deep conditioner, a flexi-bristle brush, and a ton of time and patience to tease through each tightly coiled strand. When I was a girl, my mother spent two hours or more every other week washing, blow-drying, and styling my afro, carefully detangling, sectioning, twisting, plaiting, and securing the hair. But even her most meticulous dos were no match for the guaranteed frizz fest that resulted from dance classes, pool parties, or sleepaway camp. And as a single mother, she only had so much time to style me and my two sisters. Altering my hair texture wasn’t an option; Mom distrusted the chemicals used to permanently straighten hair and the heat tools that could temporarily do the same. So like Faith, the Cook sisters, and so many sistas before and since, I turned to box braids, Senegalese twists, cornrows, and other protective styles that, like locs, last for weeks or longer, endure water, and generally look pretty damn good.

For me and others who’ve had similar experiences, it’s self-evident that these styles are so historically and culturally tied to Black people that they constitute immutable characteristics protected under the Civil Rights Act. Since 2019, a growing network of government officials, activists, and legal experts have been arguing as much across the country, fighting state by state to eliminate hair discrimination. Within that movement, the Crown Coalition group of more than 80 advocacy and nongovernmental organizations has taken the lead. Its primary tool is a template bill called the Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, or Crown Act. A version of the bill has stalled in the U.S. Senate, but the basic framework is now law in 14 states and has been introduced in the legislatures of dozens of others.

In some states (California, Connecticut, New Mexico), the campaign to persuade lawmakers to pass it into state law has received a resounding yes. In others it’s been more of a grind, as Black people and advocacy groups and their allies lobby a vast sea of melanin-challenged public officials to take action on a problem that doesn’t personally hurt or disadvantage them. And wouldn’t you know it: Black people have had a little bit of experience in that area.

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