Dustin Gardiner, San Francisco Chronicle, July 3, 2019
California became the first state in the nation Wednesday to ban discrimination against black employees and students based on their natural hairstyles.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB188 by state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, in a ceremony in his office. The bill amends state anti-discrimination and education codes to include hair characteristics tied to race as a protected class.
“My choice of how I choose to wear my hair shouldn’t impact my ability to get a job, keep a job or be promoted,” said Mitchell, who is African American. “It’s about black women or men being empowered to choose.”
Supporters say the bill is necessary because many employers and school districts have “Eurocentric” policies that prohibit hairstyles historically associated with African Americans, including braids, locks and twists.
They say such policies treat traits associated with African Americans, such as kinky or curly hair, as a “badge of inferiority” and can lead people to take unhealthy steps to alter their natural hair texture.
The bill passed both chambers of the Legislature with unanimous support, although about a dozen lawmakers didn’t vote.
The bill, known as the CROWN Act, says traditional notions of “professionalism” are “closely linked to European features and mannerisms, meaning those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.”
Federal law already prohibits discrimination against people with Afro hairstyles, but not hairstyles that many African Americans wear, such as braids, locks and twists.
Tina Opie, an associate professor at Babson College in Massachusetts, has studied workplace policies related to authenticity and natural hair for a decade. She said that while many companies have seemingly innocuous rules, words like “classic, clean, polished and professional” are often interpreted in discriminatory ways.
She said policies that force black people to alter their natural hair can harm their physical and mental health. Many chemical hair straighteners and relaxers contain ingredients that increase the risk of various cancers.
Other methods, such as hot combs and flat irons, can cause serious burns or permanently damage hair, if used incorrectly.