‘A long time coming’: Natural hair discrimination bill gets Senate committee hearing
State Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) at an “informational strike” outside Sparrow Hospital on Nov. 4, 2021 | Anna Gustafson
Legislation to protect individuals from race-based discrimination due to their hair was taken up Thursday in a legislative committee in Michigan for the first time.
After introducing the bill in two previous legislative sessions, sponsor Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) told the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee that creating a respectful environment for Black Michiganders’ hair is “a long time coming.”
Bans on discrimination based on race included in Michigan’s civil rights laws would be expanded to include protections for “traits historically associated with race” under SB 90. The bill specifies that such traits include, but are not limited to hairstyles such as twists, braids and locks, which are common protective hairstyles for Black individuals.
The legislation is also known as the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act. There are 20 states that have passed their own CROWN Acts, according to the CROWN Coalition, which was created in partnership with Dove and the National Urban League, among other groups.
The committee on Thursday took testimony on the bill, but didn’t vote on it.
“I have heard countless stories from men and women who have been passed over for promotions, sent home and terminated because their hairstyles were arbitrarily deemed or perceived as unprofessional, unkempt, or distracting,” Anthony said. “This problem has also affected Michigan’s children, with students or student athletes being sent home, prohibited from participating in extracurricular activities and otherwise disciplined for violating school dress codes or policies.”
Sen. Jim Runstead (R-White Lake) expressed his concerns that the bill opens small businesses up to being accused of discrimination in “100 different ways” and therefore takes a degree of choice from them in the hiring process.
Runstead told a story of his son, who he said is white with “beautiful black frizzy hair” not being able to get a job until he cut his hair.
“I told him, ‘You can have that big mop of black hair and that’ll be your identity. You’re not gonna get a job, but you can have that,’” Runstead said. “There came a point where he made a clean cut. I don’t believe it’s up to me to mandate that the employer hire my son because he wants his hair the way it is.”
However, Anthony told her colleague she doesn’t have a choice of how her hair as a Black woman grows out of her head and that her bill deals with hairstyles as they pertain to race-based discrimination.
Too many children have missed school due to race-based discrimination towards their hair and too many individuals seeking employment have been turned away due to problematic practices, activist Adjoa Asamoah, a co-creator of the CROWN Coalition, told lawmakers Thursday.
“I know the harm negative school climate and culture can do to a child, the psychological impact of being told that the way you were born, the way you look is not OK. That is something no person should have to endure,” Asamoah said.
Outdated perceptions of what is “professional hair” are exclusionary, specifically to Black Michiganders, said Gabrielle Dresner, representing the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Race and racism create situations that are more complicated than the current statute addresses, and change needs to be made to combat the harmful impact of historic discrimination, notably for children, Dresner said.
“We want to give them the best fighting chance to grow up to be strong and competent kids in our community,” Dresner said. “An individual’s hair has absolutely no impact on their ability to do their job or to learn in school, but racial discrimination does.”
The bill does have support from some in the business community.
Efforts like the CROWN Act help to attract and retain talent in Michigan’s workforce, Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Steven Japinga testified in the Thursday committee meeting.
“I think it’s pretty simple. Regardless of the way you wear your hair, you should be able to feel safe and included in the workplace,” Japinga said.
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