‘I love my hair because it’s expressive’: The move behind the CROWN Act in Alabama

The CROWN Act bill has been filed in Alabama

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Kinks, coils, curls and waves. The textures of our hair are as varied as the hues of our skin. And the hairstyles we choose to wear are a reflection of who we are.

Bebe said, “I love my hair because it’s expressive.”

Muriel said, “I love my natural because it is versatile.”

Sharon said, “I’m a diva, so I have to have options for my hair. I’ve been wearing sisterlocs for 18 years.”

Aboni said, “I love to change my color up from red, orange, black, maybe even blue one day, but I love my hair because I can wear it any type of way, any day.”

Tonya said, “I love my braids.”

Sharifa said, “I love my locs.”

But as more Black people embrace the natural strands growing from their heads many realize the fight toward racial equality includes hair.

Lashawn Hill, the C.R.O.W.N. Campaign ambassador said, “I think subconsciously, a lot of people don’t understand the issues that we go through. A lot of people don’t understand the invasion of our privacy that we get when we are natural. You’ll have people that will walk up to you and say, ‘can I touch your hair?’ and I’m like… ‘okay, in what world do you walk up to a complete stranger and you just want to touch their hair?’”

At issue? Hair discrimination, a form of social injustice targeting those with afro-textured hair.

Many in the Black community say they’ve felt pressure to conform to a more Eurocentric standard of beauty after being told their hair was a distraction, unprofessional, unattractive, or even unclean.

Kevin Kirk, owner & CEO of Kirkpro said, “I did have people frown upon me because the ignorance about locs is that they, that when I first got them, people were thinking that you didn’t wash your hair and it wasn’t manicured, it wasn’t good hygiene. And I had some clients and some associates to question my hygiene because of my hair which I thought was just ridiculous and stupid. I’m like so you think I do hair for a living, I’m a professional cosmetologist and I’m walking around here with hair that I never shampoo that is not kept, and you know bad hygiene. I mean… part of what I do is hygiene and beauty, so come on let’s be reasonable.”

Birmingham City Councilor Crystal Smitherman said, “I have felt you know that I had to straighten my hair or that I remember Googling asking my Black female friends what’s more professional box braids or Senegalese twists; how should I wear it just... And nobody should have to do that because unless I’m thinking of something else or I’m just not remembering anything I don’t know any other race that has to think about what hairstyle they have to deal with.”

This form of discrimination isn’t new, it dates back centuries.

And recent studies show Black women are 80-percent more likely than white women to believe they need to change their hair to fit in at work, and were more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair.

Ala. Rep. Rolanda Hollis, District 58 said, “I feel angry because number one you cannot tell me why you’re sending me home because of my hair. I just got my hair done, so I know it’s neat. I know it’s pretty, and I know it look good, so what is your issue with my hair? Because I decide to fix my hair in a different way other than what you’re used to, and it’s unfair. This time… it’s just time out for discrimination. Since being a state representative of district 58 sitting in this seat I think this job has put me more on my knees more than any other job I have ever had in my life because you see so much; you see the blatant racism.”

But this isn’t just a workplace problem.

Many schools have controversial dress code policies, some say unfairly target Black children.

In 2017, twin 15-year-olds, Mya and Deanna Cook, were given detentions when school officials at their Boston, Massachusetts charter school determined their professionally-braided hair was in violation of school policy.

The same thing happened in Terrytown, Louisiana in 2018, when school leaders at Christ the King Middle School expelled a girl because of her braids, saying the hairstyle was “unnatural.”

And then there was Andrew Johnson, the New Jersey teenager, who was given an ultimatum: cut his locs or forfeit his wrestling match.

“When they took him there, they knew he had locs. Who told them to pick up a pair of scissors and alter a child in front of the world like that? Just for a match. Somebody should have been his advocate,” said Hill.

Kirk said, “I was floored. I understood he wanted to compete. I mean you got to. I appreciate the fact that he put a lot of time effort and energy to be in that position and he wanted to see it through. I was so mad that now I’m being a little judgmental and I understand I may not know the whole story, but I felt like somebody should have come and championed that boy and kept him from having to cut his locks.”

A movement to end hair discrimination is gaining ground across the country.

The CROWN Act is a law that prohibits the denial of employment and educational opportunities based on hair texture or protective hairstyles like braids, locs, twists or bantu knots.

“What does C.R.O.W.N. stand for? Creating a respectable and open world for natural hair… and that title in itself is just beautiful. I think it’s, ‘Respect’ is the one word. Just respect my DNA, my heritage, who I am as a person that I cannot absolutely change,” said Smitherman.

The CROWN Act was created by Dove and the Crown Coalition back in 2019 ensuring legal protection from disciplinary action for certain hairstyles worn in the workplace and schools.

Hollis said, “It angers me a little because this is 2021. Why do we need a bill for this this? This should be automatic. I have to.. I’m not going to get emotional ‘cuz it rattles me, but we have to come up with a bill so for us not to be discriminated against our hair?”

The CROWN Act was first introduced in California and became law there in 2019.

Six other states including: New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado, Washington, and Maryland have also adopted the CROWN Act, or similar legislation.

And many here hope Alabama will be the 8th state to join the movement.

Hill said, “To be an ambassador for the Crown Act, basically you are taking on the role for your city seeing how you can push this organization, this grassroots organization, and how we can help here in Alabama. We’re trying to establish a bill where you don’t have discrimination against your natural hair in the workplace.”

“I started on this bill which this year this session is HB 87, and I started working on this bill. Now, I also got a colleague of mine who’s an attorney. He started working on this bill with me because he saw the push back that I was getting from this bill, said Hollis. “This bill is called the Civil Rights Act of Alabama which is also adopted by the CROWN Act…… We’ve gone through enough and I think it’s...to me... With everything going on, I think this is the right time for this bill because it’s time out for discrimination because of how we look because of how we wear our hair.”

Smitherman said, “We want to make sure that they hire you or keep you on the job because you are qualified; you have the credentials; you have the experience. Like that’s what should matter most.”

For many Black people hair is about self-expression.

So, whether you want to wear your hair relaxed, natural, braided, locked or otherwise, it simply boils down to choice.

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