It doesn’t make much sense to prohibit discrimination based on race if we still allow discrimination based on race-based characteristics.
The CROWN (“Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”) Act, which was passed in California in 2019, is an attempt to recognize that many African-American people are subject to discrimination based on Eurocentric expectations of beauty and professionalism.
Black men and women have suffered discrimination in California and across the U.S. that relates to their natural hair and the hairstyles they use to protect natural hair. The CROWN Act recognizes that our nation has long equated “Blackness” and characteristics associated with Blackness to be badges of inferiority. This supposed inferiority has allowed Black people to be treated unequally based on their natural characteristics.
Specifically, Black people are often openly criticized or discriminated against because they have curly or kinky hair – or because they adopt a natural or protective hairstyle such as dreadlocks, braids or an Afro.
Some people have called Black hairstyles “unprofessional” and penalized people for having them. Yet the concept of professionalism is highly Eurocentric. People of non-European ancestry have been forced to alter their appearance and behavior in order to be deemed “professional.” This has occurred not only in professional settings but also in school.
Afros were already protected federally
In the context of federal anti-discrimination law, federal courts already accept that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination when Black people choose to wear Afros. However, the law had not specifically included other traditional African-American hairstyles such as twists, braids and locks.
The CROWN Act adds natural and protective hairstyles to California’s anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, at school and in public accommodations. Now, when we say that race discrimination is prohibited, “race” includes the concept of hair texture and protective hairstyles.
The CROWN Act affects the workplace, school and public accommodations
Today, employers with five or more employees may not adopt workplace dress codes or grooming policies that prohibit natural hair or protective hairstyles. They may not take a person’s natural hair or traditional hairstyle into account when hiring, promoting or termination, or in any aspect of employment, unless doing so is necessary for the essential functions of the job.
Moreover, the CROWN Act prohibits discrimination against someone the employer perceives to have a natural or protective hairstyle, along with anyone associated with someone with a natural or protective hairstyle.
For the purposes of school, the Education Code has been changed to ensure that “race or ethnicity” is defined as including hair texture and protective hairstyles. Therefore hairstyle discrimination is officially considered discrimination based on race or ethnicity.
Furthermore, the CROWN Act has modified the definition of “race and ethnicity” in the entire California Fair Employment and Housing Act, meaning that discrimination against natural and protective hairstyles is considered race or ethnic discrimination in housing and other public accommodations.
Can I wear my hair any way I like?
This is unclear as of yet. The CROWN Act defines “protective hairstyles” broadly. It includes, but is not limited to, hairstyles like braids, dreadlocks and twists.
If your school, employer or landlord discriminates based on your hair being in a style other than these or an Afro, you might need to show that the hairstyle you have adopted is natural or protective in nature. And, employers can still prohibit hairstyles that directly interfere with an essential job function.
California was the first state in the nation to adopt the CROWN Act into law. Since then, 10 other states have passed similar legislation.
Leigh Law Group handles civil rights litigation for people who have faced unlawful discrimination at work, at school or in public accommodations.