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The CROWN Act ushers in a necessary dialogue about Black women’s hair in and out of the office

March 29, 2022, 8:29 PM UTC

My white mother recalls the shock of my birth this way. The first call she got from “the Carolina cousins” was a question she didn’t expect. “Does she have good hair?” my father’s Aunt Bessie asked, spending precious money on a long-distance call to find out. My mother never quite got over it.

And neither did I.

What followed was years of insulting hair advice from family, friends, and teachers to straighten and “fix” my hair, in an earnest attempt to improve my prospects in life. Later came the nasty asides about attractiveness and professionalism. Hours lost to straightening. A happy retirement’s worth of riches spent on product and devices. I lost interest in the fight in my 20s, by my 30s, I was militant on the subject of natural hair, even though on the spectrum of possible non-white hair, mine was really pretty “good.”

I mention all this because last week Congress passed the CROWN Act, legislation that would ban race-based hair discrimination at work and school, within federal programs, and public accommodations. CROWN, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, passed along party lines. Some 13 U.S. states have already instituted some version of CROWN legislation. The federal law also makes clear that Black people are entitled to wear their hair as it grows naturally and not be forced to use extreme measures like chemicals to relax it.

“Natural hair should be worn without fear of discrimination,” said Democratic Congresswoman Jahana Hayes of Connecticut. “No to the nappy hair act,” said Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

The pressure to police Black hair has a long history and is deeply rooted in racism, informed by the belief that European beauty standards of beauty indicate an inherently superior form of humanity. As a result, Black workers are demeaned, passed over, ignored. People with natural hairstyles are targeted by police. Students are routinely humiliated or worse—suspended or shunted into the criminal justice system for dress code and hair “violations.

It’s complicated. Good hair has been a debate within African American communities since Reconstruction. By the 1920s, the quest for smooth hair made Madame C.J. Walker the first Black millionaire in the U.S., selling hair management products that allowed Black families to signal their arrival in the middle class. About a decade later, Marcus Garvey declared, “do not remove the kinks from your hair, remove them from your brain.”

Black hair became a civil rights issue in the aftermath of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as people correctly identified natural hair as an identity-affirming choice, and turned “Black is Beautiful” into a legitimate cry of freedom. Soon, workers began taking employers to court to defend their right to style their hair as they chose. It’s been a journey. In the 1976 case of Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance, afros were on trial. Afros won. In the 1981 case of Rogers v. American Airlines, cornrows lost, and have continued to lose.

Until now.

There is a significant body of work—advocacy efforts, academic research, books, and documentaries—that have chronicled the complicated (and joyous!) relationship Black and brown people have with their hair, a cultural burden that falls heavily, but certainly not entirely, on women and children.

One documentary I’d recommend is Good Hair, which was produced and co-written by Chris Rock and released in 2009. (You knew I was going to end up here, I know you did.) Rock spends time deep inside the Black hair industrial complex, visiting the entrepreneurs who have been made rich, and the people who sit in the hairdresser chair risking scalp burns and root damage for an ideal they’re only partly sold on.

Why he chose to weaponize that knowledge for a throwaway joke at the Oscars is anybody’s guess and none of my business.

I understand why it’s interesting, and in some ways, necessary, to burn some watercooler time talking about Will and Jada and the slap heard ’round the world. But in the spectrum of non-white hair, mine turned out to be a systemic advantage. It’s a privilege I do not wear lightly. In that spirit, I say: Don’t let the drama be a distraction from the work.

Talk to me. How has commentary about your hair, clothes, or appearance held you back? Brought anguish to you or your kids? How does this play out for you if you’re Latinx, Asian/AAPI, LGBTQ, first-gen knowledge worker, or disabled needing accommodation? From this point of view, what needs to happen for leaders to build more inclusive workplaces? Write me back, subject line: Slap

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On Point

That said, the Oscars were a celebration of underrepresented stories Progress remains slow, but it was unmistakeable. Among the highlights: Ariana DeBose, who played Anita in West Side Story, followed in her co-star’s dance slippers to become the second Latina to win an Oscar. (Rita Moreno won for the same role in 1962). “You see an openly queer woman of color Afro-Latina who found her strength in life through art, and that is what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” she said. CODA, with a majority-deaf cast, won Best Picture, despite only three total nominations, a milestone not achieved since 1932. Troy Kotsur won best supporting actor for his work in CODA, making him the first male deaf actor to win the top prize. (His co-star, Marlee Matlin, was the first deaf actor to win an Oscar for Children of a Lesser God, in 1987.) His moving acceptance speech brought the audience to their feet signing their applause. “This is dedicated to our Deaf community, CODA community, disabled community,” he said. “This is our moment.” More below.

Hollywood Reporter

Black Tesla workers allege serious racist conduct at the company They were called the N-word. They were relegated to the part of the factory known as “the plantation.” These stories, reported by Los Angeles Times, provide collateral testimony to allegations found in a lawsuit filed last February by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing on behalf of more than 4,000 current and former Black Tesla employees. The stories are brutal. Verbal harassment, racial and homophobic slurs, disproportionately difficult work, and no chance for advancement. Discrimination complaints were met with threats or dismissal. Tesla is “modern-day slavery,” said one worker. “And we are the crabs in the barrel.”

Los Angeles Times 

Baltimore Museum of Art and the curators hiding in plain sight Nothing turns the status quo on its head like a bold leadership choice. Last year, the BMA asked the one group of people who know their collection better than almost anyone—their security guards—to co-curate an exhibition of their current collection. That exhibit opened this week. The guards worked with various departments and got paid for the extra work. And best of all, we were reminded of the inner lives of the invisible people around us. Kellen Johnson is working his way through college as a BMA guard and is studying vocal performance at Towson University in Maryland. He chose a painting by the often-overlooked African American painter Hale Woodruff, called Normandy Landscape. "I asked myself, 'if these paintings could sing, what would they sound like?'" The Woodruff sounded like Mozart. "Made me think about walking along a row of trees on a darkish day." Click through this NPR piece to see the painting and hear Johnson sing. 

NPR

On background

Alopecia—it's not just a 'white' thing  Alopecia areata is gaining more attention as a medical condition following The Slap heard 'round the world. And while Will Smith went onstage and slapped Academy Award presenter, comedian Chris Rock, for making a joke concerning his wife’s baldness, it's actually a relatively common condition that affects up to 6.8 million in the U.S. alone.

Amiah Taylor, one of our interns here at Fortune, took a closer look at how the condition impacts Black women in particular. She spoke with Dr. Crystal Aguh, an associate professor of dermatology who specializes in alopecia and the director of the Ethnic Skin Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “Alopecia areata and age related hair thinning are two forms of alopecia that are fairly common and occur equally in all ethnic groups,” Aguh explained. “However, hairstyle related alopecia like traction alopecia, for example, occurs almost primarily in Black women. And it's a very, very common form of hair loss affecting up to one third of Black women. Many Black women will experience some form of alopecia in their life, whether it's age-related, autoimmune, hairstyle-related, or other forms. And so alopecia is somewhat unfortunately normalized in our community just because so many of us deal with it at some point in our lives.”

Read more from Amiah here

Parting words

"If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they're not happy."

Paul Mooney, in Good Hair

 

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