How the combat for pure black hair turned a civil rights challenge | Race

AIn the midst of news coverage of the troubling 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 been largely overlooked. On April 13, Delaware became the ninth state in the United States to prohibit discrimination based on hair. With issues like criminal justice reform dominating political discourse, issues like hair discrimination may seem strange to some, but they actually represent the next frontier on the road to racial and economic justice.

As evidence of the seriousness of the problem, the NAACP’s Legal Protection and Education Fund has pushed efforts to end discrimination based on hair texture and culture-specific hairstyles. The fund represents Chastity Jones, whose job offer was withdrawn in 2010 for refusing to cut her dreadlocks. In 2018, the US Supreme Court declined a review of the case. However, as more states adopt worker protections against this type of discrimination, a federal showdown is inevitable. As a result, activists and lawmakers are increasingly working to educate political leaders and the public about why the issue is important.

For those of us with hair that doesn’t meet Eurocentric beauty standards, we know why it matters. Like many black women, I was exposed to painful products and procedures to straighten my hair as a child. It wasn’t until I grew up that I understood the gap between those of us who spent Saturdays in a hair salon having our hair subdued and our non-black colleagues. While a white supervisor revealed the painful after-effects of another chemical burn on my scalp from a straightener, he argued that my experience was similar to being asked to put her hair in a ponytail. This exchange illustrates the need for education on this topic.

During a recent Zoom discussion hosted in conjunction with The Glorious World of Crowns, Kinks and Curls, my streaming collection of hair stories about black women, black women lawmakers shared efforts to educate skeptical colleagues into allies. Delegate Stephanie Smith noted that there has been a misconception that braids and dreadlocks are simply an aesthetic choice when in fact they are viewed as protective styles for blacks, meaning our hair is less damaged by wearing them. Up to their point, thanks to overly aggressive straightening efforts, I had fallen out my own hair and then adopted braids. But I also have the luxury of doing that as a writer who now mainly works in Hollywood. It’s worth noting, however, that my journey from journalist to playwright and screenwriter was partly triggered by my hair. After years of over-straightening and wearing extensions to suit an ideal television news presenter, my dermatologist told me that I have long-term damage to my hair and scalp and that I need to adjust my hair routine quickly. Instead, I’ve adjusted careers.

But Delegate Smith doesn’t think people like me should have to. That’s why 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 options might have been denied just because I was opposed to a European beauty aesthetic,” Smith wrote in an email. Smith and others found that the problem doesn’t just protect women. Many Americans were appalled that teen wrestler Andrew Johnson was forced to cut his dreadlocks during a game in 2018. Also, employers who do not insist on facial hair may not be aware that constant shaving exposes black men to painful skin conditions due to the texture of their hair. Something that their non-black colleagues are far less likely to experience.

Although Delaware increases the number of states with hair protection laws to nine, dozens of others have similar laws pending. Smith noted that “with a friendlier Congress, I hope we will have national law soon”. The fact that Delaware is Joe Biden’s home state also makes many hopeful, as does 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 woman president of a broadcast news division when she was named president of ABC News. She wears braids in one of her official portraits and her natural hair in another. Hopefully this means that younger black female journalists are no longer exposed to the pressures I once had.

  • Keli Goff’s piece “The Glorious World of Crowns, Kinks and Curls” is now playing on the Baltimore Center Stage. She was nominated for two Emmys for Reversing Roe.

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