Cameo King spoke at the Feb. 21, 2023 press conference on the CROWN Act | courtesy photo
Legislation to protect Black Michiganders from hair-based discrimination has, once again, been introduced in Michigan, although this time the chances of success are much brighter.
State Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) held a press conference Tuesday in Lansing shortly after introducing Senate Bill 90, known as the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, which protects people from discrimination in the workplace based on their natural hair.
Anthony first introduced the bill in 2019 as a state representative, but it failed to get a hearing by the GOP-led House. It met a similar fate in the 2021-22 session. However, with Democrats now in control of the Legislature, the legislation is expected to not only get a hearing, but an up or down vote.
Anthony said that was long overdue.
“Although many could not see that vision back then, I am pleased to report that the CROWN Act has passed in over 20 states, and we hope to have Michigan be the 21st state to finally end hair discrimination,” she said. “Now, what we know is that hair discrimination disproportionately impacts African Americans, particularly Black women, who oftentimes, our curls, our kinks, our locks, our dreads, our twist outs, our braid outs, however God created our hair to grow out of our scalp, is often deemed unprofessional.”
Anthony said there had been countless women who had reached out to her office and said they had been denied a job because they refused to chemically straighten their hair, as well as men with dreadlocks, who said they were denied health care at local hospitals because the healthcare professional didn’t want to touch their hair despite them having an open head wound.
“This has an emotional connection to many of us,” said Anthony. “It has a financial connection. It impacts our pocketbooks, it impacts our self-esteem, to be told that you are not worthy, that you are not okay the way you show up as your true and authentic self.”
The measure would amend the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to protect against the denial of employment or educational opportunities because of “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles,” such as “braids, locks, and twists.”
Also speaking at the event was Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), who co-sponsored the bill and chairs the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus.
“Denying people access to employment, denying people access to healthcare, denying people access to education, and to the extracurricular programs connected to education, is something that we should not permit and something that we should not allow to persist,” she said. “Hopefully we will get the CROWN Act past this term so that everyone will be protected. No matter how you rock your locks, whether you wear your hair in Afro, whether you wear your hair curly, coiled, twisted, pinked, braids, locks, it should not matter because what you bring to the table should be more important than how people perceive you.”
The movement to provide legal protection for hairstyles was sparked, in part, by Chastity Jones, a Black woman who applied for a job in 2010 as a customer service representative with Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS), an insurance claims company in Alabama. She got the job, but the company rescinded the offer because she would not comply with a request to cut her dreadlocks.
Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against CMS, a district court ruled for the company, saying its grooming policy did not constitute intentional discrimination because hair styles, unlike skin color, are not an “immutable” characteristic. That ruling was later upheld by the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
While Cameo King, who also spoke at Tuesday’s press conference, wasn’t ordered to cut her hair, she was told in no uncertain terms she would not advance in her career with her natural hairstyle.
King, a Detroit native and Howard University alum who has worked in Lansing media, now runs Grit, Glam, and Guts, a nonprofit that works to improve the “personal, social, academic, and career development of girls throughout Michigan.”
King told her story about working as a producer in television, trying to find a way on air when she was told bluntly that her hair would be a barrier to that goal.
“One day after having several conversations with the news director about improving my skills, he very directly said, ‘You won’t get a job in TV with your hair like that.’ He was pointing at my hair on the TV as we both viewed my simple reporter reel. There were no comments about improving my writing or my delivery, but rather about my hair.”
She said it wouldn’t be the last time she heard that same comment, including from a news director in Ohio who said she needed to change her hair.
“It never occurred to me that my hard work, dedication to journalism and skill became null and void when met with my black hair,” said King. “Who knew the sight of black hair would restrict my career options? And I want to be clear, it wasn’t about my skill-set, because again, I went on to be an award-winning journalist in radio while I was still working for TV. And so I shared this story because I think when people see accomplished black women in their community and positions of leaderships and positions of influence, like a lot of these women around me, doing our job with confidence and boldness, our stories of being passed up on opportunities because of discrimination, very rarely come to light because you only see success here.”
Legislation similar to Anthony’s bill was first introduced in California in January 2019 and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Other measures have been passed and signed in Washington, New York, Colorado, Virginia, New Jersey and 14 other states.
A federal CROWN act was proposed in 2020, and while it won passage in the U.S. House, it failed in the U.S. Senate. Another bill was approved by the House in 2022, but is awaiting consideration in the Senate.
While the CROWN Act has yet to win statewide approval, several Michigan communities have passed similar protective ordinances, including Ingham and Genesee counties, as well as Ann Arbor, Lansing and Flint.
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