Austin, Texas, has taken a significant step in combating hair discrimination.
In June, the Austin City Council approved the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act. The resolution aims to eliminate discrimination based on hair texture or hairstyle that results in a denial of basic civil rights, including educational, housing and employment opportunities.
"I'm beyond thrilled that at this time in our nation's history, Austin took a stand to protect authenticity, to protect culture and heritage, and to affirm our duty to ensure these protections for all who call Austin home," said Carol Johnson, director of the city's Office of Civil Rights.
Passing the CROWN Act also revises the city's definition of "discriminatory employment practice" to include "protective hairstyles." These include but are not limited to:
- Bantu knots.
- Hair that is tightly coiled or tightly curled.
"Passing the CROWN Act in Austin codifies an important protection that promotes freedom from discrimination simply for being one's authentic self," Johnson said. "No one should have to hide their natural characteristics, such as hair texture, in order to enjoy life and have access to public spaces [or] housing and to gain or advance in employment."
What Hair Discrimination Looks Like
Hair discrimination, particularly against Black women, is widespread. In 2020, a research paper by Michigan State University showed that Black women face the highest instances of hair discrimination and are more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair.
Eighty percent of Black women felt they needed to switch their hairstyle to align with more conservative standards to fit in at work, the paper indicated.
A separate study by Duke University found that Black women with natural hairstyles were perceived as less professional and less competent when compared with Black women with straightened hair and white women with straight or curly hair. Black women with natural hairstyles also received fewer recommendations for job interviews.
In 2010, an Alabama woman, who is Black, was offered a job as a customer service representative at a call center. However, the company later rescinded the offer because the woman refused to cut her dreadlocks, saying the hairstyle violated the organization's "grooming policy."
In 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on the candidate's behalf, arguing that the policy "discriminates against African-Americans based on physical and/or cultural characteristics." However, the Southern District of Alabama dismissed the claim, stating that hairstyle is not an immutable characteristic protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it can be changed.
In 2016, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court's ruling.
"Discrimination in all its ugliness continues to plague our society as bad actors find new and creative ways to treat others in a manner that strips dignity and respect," Johnson said. "This is not acceptable, and Austin has publicly denounced hair discrimination in our city."
Where the CROWN Act Stands Federally
The CROWN Act was first introduced in 2019 as part of a national movement driven by the CROWN Coalition—an alliance working to create a more equitable and inclusive experience for Black people through the advancement of anti-hair-discrimination legislation.
"While [Austin's passage of the CROWN Act] is a great accomplishment, it's not enough," said Lauren Baker, global brand manager of Dove, a personal care company that co-founded the CROWN Coalition. "The CROWN Act must pass at the federal level for all our 'crowns' to be protected."
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the CROWN Act in March. The bill now sits with the Senate. To become law, at least 51 of the 100 senators must vote for it to pass. It would then get handed off to President Joe Biden, who can either veto it or sign it into law.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., applauded House Republicans and Democrats for joining together to pass legislation that will allow individuals, especially within the Black community, to wear their hair proudly without fear of prejudice.
"In this country, implicit and explicit biases against natural hair are deeply ingrained in workplace norms and society at large and continue the legacy of dehumanizing Black people," Booker said in a statement. "No one should be harassed, punished or fired for their natural hairstyles that are true to themselves and their cultural heritage. Fairness and equality should not be partisan issues, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to support this important bill."
So far, 17 states have passed the legislation, amending the definition of the word "race" to include protections against hair discrimination.