California is now the first state to explicitly protect natural hairstyles in its anti- workplace discrimination laws. The aptly-named CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) acknowledges that hairstyles have racial and cultural implications and that Blackness has historically been ridiculed.
In April, the California State Senate took steps toward enacting the act. At the end of June, the Assembly passed the bill, and July 3, Governor Gavin Newsom signed it into law.
This move comes as discussions about prejudice against Black women’s natural hairstyles are increasingly entering mainstream conversation.
In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions case reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. There, the Court shot down EEOC’s claims that CMS violated Title VII protection against racial discrimination based on the employer’s decision to not hire a woman with dreadlocks because the hairstyle “tends to get messy.” The Eleventh Circuit Court claimed hairstyles were not immutable characteristics, and thus did not constitute “race.” The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
In January, Black Mississippi news anchor Brittany Noble was fired after filing complaints about workplace discrimination regarding her gender and race — including remarks about her natural hairstyle. In a personal essay, she published after her job was terminated, Noble recounted being criticized for not straightening her hair.
However, there have also been small victories nationwide preceding California’s new law. Recently, Illinois news anchor Briana Collins celebrated wearing braids on-air for the first time.
Additionally, Dallas County Judge, Amber Givens-Davis recently made headlines when she allowed press into the courtroom during the high-profile trial of Wesley Matthews. Her hairstyle —shaved on the sides and long on top — as well as her “bold” makeup had critics making racist and sexist comments calling her “ghetto.” Givens-Davis said she would continue to take her job seriously while also expressing herself through her appearance.
The new CROWN Act amends California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, including hair texture and style in traits typically associated with race and even specifically naming examples of protective hairstyles such as braids, dreadlocks, and twists now protected under the law.
The bill also acknowledges the history of Black traits and culture being viewed as inferior and unprofessional, saying:
(a) The history of our nation is riddled with laws and societal norms that equated “blackness,” and the associated physical traits, for example, dark skin, kinky and curly hair to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment.
(b) This idea also permeated societal understanding of professionalism. Professionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.
The CROWN Act is the first official law explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on hairstyle, though the New York City Human Rights Commission released a guidance memorandum in February explaining the city’s anti-discrimination law already prohibited hairstyle discrimination.
In light of the CROWN Act’s passing, all California employers must now review and amend their grooming policies if they discourage natural hairstyles or any other proxies to race.