How the fight for natural black hair became a civil rights issue

<span>Photograph: Hero Images Inc/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Hero Images Inc/Alamy

Amid coverage of the disturbing death of Daunte Wright and the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd, it’s no surprise that a recent civil rights victory has gone largely overlooked. On 13 April, Delaware became the ninth state in the US to ban hair-based discrimination. With issues such as criminal justice reform dominating political discourse, issues like hair discrimination may seem quaint to some, but it actually represents the next frontier in the quest for racial and economic justice.

Related: 'Wear your crown, because change is coming': Virginia joins states banning hair discrimination

As a testament to the seriousness of the issue, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has been spearheading efforts to end discrimination on the basis of hair texture and culturally specific hairstyles. The fund represents Chastity Jones, who had a job offer rescinded in 2010 for refusing to cut her dreadlocks. In 2018, the US supreme court declined to review the case. But as more states pass protections for employees against this kind of discrimination, a showdown at the federal level is inevitable. So activists and legislators are increasingly working to educate political leaders and the public on why the issue matters.

For those of us with hair that doesn’t fit Eurocentric beauty standards, we know why it matters. Like many black women, I began being subjected to painful products and procedures to straighten my hair as a child. It wasn’t until adulthood that I understood the gulf between those of us raised spending Saturdays at a hair salon, having our hair cowed into submission, and our non-black counterparts. While disclosing the painful after-effects of yet another chemical burn on my scalp from a straightening agent, a white supervisor argued that my experience was similar to her being asked to wear her hair in a ponytail. This exchange illustrates the need for education on this issue.

During a recent Zoom discussion hosted in conjunction with The Glorious World of Crowns, Kinks and Curls, my streaming collection of black women’s hair stories, black female legislators recounted efforts to turn skeptical colleagues into allies through education. Delegate Stephanie Smith noted that there was a misconception that braids and dreadlocks are simply an aesthetic choice, when they are actually considered protective styles for black people, meaning by wearing them our hair is less likely to be damaged. To her point, I have had my own hair fall out thanks to overly aggressive straightening efforts and have subsequently embraced braids. But I also have the luxury of doing that as a writer who now works primarily in Hollywood. It is worth noting, however, that my journey from journalist to playwright and screenwriter was in part prompted by my hair. After years of excessive straightening and wearing extensions to fit a TV news presenter ideal, my dermatologist told me I was doing long-term damage to my hair and scalp and needed to adjust my hair routine quickly. Instead, I adjusted careers.

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But Delegate Smith doesn’t believe people like me should have to. So she sponsored the Crown Act in Maryland, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair. It passed last year. “As a Black woman who has worn locs, afros, twists and braids for the past 20 years, I realized that some opportunities may have been denied simply because I was rejecting a European beauty aesthetic,” Smith wrote in an email. Smith and others have noted that the issue doesn’t just protect women. Many Americans were horrified to see teen wrestler Andrew Johnson being forced to cut his dreadlocks during a match in 2018. Additionally, employers who insist on no facial hair may not know that constant shaving subjects black men to painful skin conditions due to their hair texture, something their non-black counterparts are significantly less likely to experience.

Though Delaware brings the number of states with hair protection laws to nine, dozens of others have similar legislation pending. Smith observed that “with a friendlier Congress I’m hopeful we’ll soon have a national law”. The fact that Delaware is Joe Biden’s home state is leaving many hopeful too, as is the fact that his vice-president, Kamala Harris, is a black woman.

There are other reasons to be hopeful. Days ago, Kim Godwin became the first black female president of a broadcast news division when she was named president of ABC News. In one of her official portraits she can be seen wearing braids and in another, her natural hair. So hopefully this means that younger black female journalists won’t face the same pressures I once did.

  • Keli Goff’s play, The Glorious World of Crowns, Kinks and Curls, is streaming at Baltimore Center Stage now. She was nominated for two Emmys for Reversing Roe.