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Does hair need legal protections? Many black Americans say it does, here’s why

Dennis Horn has endured numerous uncomfortable moments in the workplace, based on the natural hairstyles he’s sported in the past.

A Fresno resident, Horn said the dreadlocks, cornrows, braids and afros he’s worn over the years often spurred unwanted attention. His hair sometimes became a topic of discussion by his peers and supervisors in his corporate job.

On top of that were the numerous questions by his co-workers: Is it natural? What did you do to it? Is it extensions? Can you wash it?

While the 33- year-old said he welcomed questions of genuine curiosity, those inquires sometimes had a hint of disdain – whether it was racially motivated or just plain ignorance.

“I remember once, when I actually cut my hair, a comment was made that I was ‘ready to be mature’ and ‘go places,’” he recalled. “That was never my intention in cutting my hair.”

Horn said he knows he’s not alone in those feelings. A bill is being discussed in Sacramento that would ban schools and workplaces from discriminating against people based on their natural hairstyles.

Proposed by Sen. Holly J. Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, Senate Bill 188 is being referred to as the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair).

Fresno resident Dennis Horn, shown with his dreadlocks hair style. Courtesy Dennis Horn

Hair discrimination is a problem Mitchell and SB 188’s supporters said is commonplace.

For example, in December, the story of a 16-year-old New Jersey high school varsity wrestler made headlines after he was asked by a referee to cut his dreadlocks on the spot or forfeit his match. There was outrage after the story went viral.

A toddler in Fresno was sent home on his first day of school last year because he had a fade haircut with a design on his scalp. The teacher allegedly told his parents the child couldn’t return to class until his hair was “fixed” because it was “distracting,” said Raynita Nebeker, a local special education teacher.

In 2016, prior to the Clovis Unified School District revising its controversial dress code, 17-year-old William Pleasant’s hair was initially the reasoning behind the teen not being able to enroll at Buchanan High School for his senior year. Boys couldn’t have their hair longer than their shirt collar.

More recently in 2018, a 14-year-old at Tenaya Middle School was pulled out of class and sent to the vice principal’s office due to his hair. The student had lines shaved in a design on his hair, and was told to get it “fixed.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has been involved in a few local hair discrimination cases. “It’s unfortunate that in 2019, black people are being punished for their hair, and that it is so widespread,” said ACLU staff attorney Abre’ Conner, who has helped intervene in some of the local cases.

Conner said there are already protections within the schools, but explicitly adding language about “protective hairstyles” will help close a chapter in California of discipline that has been “rooted in a legacy of racism and gender bias.”

State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) speaks to the media in Sacramento, Calif. on Jan. 24, 2017. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Gary Coronado TNS

Mitchell told The Bee that through the years, there have been court rulings favoring employers against employees who felt they were being discriminated against based on their ethnic hair.

She called that system “racist, antiquated or ill-informed,” saying there “should be protections from discrimination in the workplaces and schools.”

Additionally, SB 188 points out there historically has been a double standard in the workplace, in terms of how black employees are expected to wear their hair, compared to their white colleagues.

The bill states the idea of “professionalism” in the American workplace has typically been tied to European looks, often forcing non-whites to conform to a Euro-centric aesthetic.

Consequently, many black women for decades felt they had to chemically process or straighten their hair in order to be accepted in a predominantly white workplace. Meanwhile, black men have often cut their hair short.

“(Hair texture) does not dictate my ability to do my job well,” Mitchell said. “I have been shocked by the outpouring of support from people who have told me about their horror stories for wearing natural hair in the workplace.”

If the bill passes both houses and gets signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Mitchell said it would put “employers and schools on notice.”

Horn said he did eventually cut his hair in 2016, although, it wasn’t in response to any negative comments or discrimination.

“As of recently, I’ve never had to deal with anything like that,” he said of the discomfort and comments he faced prior to cutting his hair.

Raynita Nebeker, right, talks about the discrimination she’s endured over her hair during an interview Friday, April 26, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

Nebeker said that in many schools, the type of hairstyles allowed often go along with student dress codes. “They have certain restrictions on what they can and can’t do, and their hair is one of the big ones that they have restrictions on, as well,” she said. “So, I know, it’s (the discrimination) also in the schools.”

She said SB 188 would make an impact, if it becomes law. “I feel that a lot of students express themselves through their hair…because that’s where you are finding your identity, and your real self and being comfortable with yourself.”

A history with deep roots

Beyond its aesthetic appeal, black hair has a history and significance that many Americans are unaware of. Many black hairstyles – like various kinds of braids – have been worn on the African continent for thousands of years.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, human rights activists like Angela Davis wore afros as a political symbol of black pride.

Many black Americans have recently adopted natural hairstyles as an alternative to harsh chemicals which can cause permanent damage.

Dominique Jones has faced discrimination for her hairstyle. Photographed Friday, April 26, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

Devoya Mayo and Dominique Jones of Fresno have held workshops locally about black hair, focusing in particular on headwraps, teaching participants how to wrap their hair.

Mayo and Jones said that every time a member in a black household is considering a new hairstyle, there’s much more to consider aside from the hairdo – including the societal implications.

Mayo said she supports the proposed legislation because she hopes there will eventually become a time when those kind of discussions or concerns are no longer necessary.

“I have always worked in the nonprofit industry, no one has advertently or blatantly (been) racist about hairstyles, but there have been spaces that I’ve been in where, I think all of us have been in, where I know for a fact we’re uncomfortable because of our hair, and it shouldn’t be that way,” Mayo said.

Jones said the workshops were “to help black women embrace our culture and it helped us connect to our roots, and just express ourselves in a way that is not normalized in our community.”

SB 188 has cleared the Senate, and is now in the Assembly.

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Yesenia Amaro covers immigration and diverse communities for The Fresno Bee. She previously worked for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and the Las Vegas Review-Journal in Nevada. She recently received the 2018 Journalistic Integrity award from the CACJ. In 2015, she won the Outstanding Journalist of the Year Award from the Nevada Press Association, and also received the Community Service Award.