December 4, 2020

An anti-discrimination bill to protect Black hair and hairstyles will be prefiled in January

meunierd/Shutterstock

Albuquerque resident Kyana Sanchez said a teacher last year told her that her box braids might be a health code violation.

Rio Rancho resident Niara Johnson said she has been petted, as if she were an animal.

These were just a few of the personal stories that a group of African-American women who have formed the Central Organizing Committee for the CROWN Act in New Mexico told NM Political Report last week. The Central Organizing Committee gathered, through an online platform, for an organizational meeting as part of the group’s planning for a bill that would address discrimination of Black hair and hairstyles.

The CROWN Act, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, is a national effort to pass legislation in all 50 states. California was the first state to pass the anti-discrimination law into effect in 2019. Since then, six additional states that have followed.

The bill, if signed into law in New Mexico, would amend the state’s Human Rights Act to extend statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools.

A complaint would go before the state’s Human Rights Bureau, but if not resolved there, the complainant could take the matter to civil court.

Aja Brooks, a member of the committee, said discrimination against Black hair and hairstyles is rooted in slavery.

Committee member Sheryl Felecia Means said hair serves as “a racial marker.”

“Kinky hair and nappy hair is intended to evoke an image of an Afro-descended woman. It reduces it down to a very specific image and creates a language and vocabulary around our bodies as somehow less human because of the way our hair looks and grows,” she said.

Means said someone asking personal questions about an African-American woman’s hair might not be thinking about it that way, but that such questions about a Black woman’s hair are underscored by that racial history.

“They are inherently pejorative and stem from the racialization of Black people,” Means said. “What happened in slavery and what happened after, all of those things are wrapped up in our hair in 2020.”

Janelle Anyanonu, another member of the committee, said she has been in professional settings and had to explain her hair.

“I’m always amazed when I’m in a professional setting. There are so many more important things we could be talking about but I’ve had to pause the conversation to explain to everybody what my hair hygiene is,” she said.

Alexandria Taylor, chair of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Advisory Council for Racial Justice and director of Sexual Assault Services, New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, said the discrimination the women in the Central Organizing Committee have experienced are not “isolated incidents.”

The personal care company, Dove, did research on Black women’s hair and hair styles and found that Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair. Black women are 3.4 times more likely to be perceived in the workplace as unprofessional because of their hair. They are also 30 percent more likely to be made aware of a workplace’s formal appearance policy and 80 percent of Black women polled said they have had to change their hair from its natural state to fit into the workplace.

“This is not micro aggression, it’s macro aggression. It has real consequences. It keeps us from access to the system. It’s shrouded in institutionalized policy,” Taylor said.

The effects can range from an inability to find a job, to internalized racism and sense of shame for being who they are, the members of the Central Organizing Committee said.

The CROWN Coalition is an alliance of organizations, including founding members Dove, National Urban League, Color Of Change and Western Center on Law and Poverty. The coalition is trying to get the Crown Act passed in all 50 states.

Some of the women involved in the Central Organizing Committee talked about how they’d tried to straighten their hair. Erica Davis-Crump, a member of the committee, said that when she was in middle school, she would cry because her hair wouldn’t straighten.

“I burned myself when I’d drop the hot comb or the curling iron and have hyper pigmentation around my bangs,” she said.

Nichole Rogers, a member of the committee, said the health of an African-American woman’s hair is tied to Black women’s overall health outcomes.

“When you get your hair pressed and straightened, you don’t want to sweat or swim to exercise,” she said.

She said Black women have a disproportionately higher rate for high blood pressure and diabetes.

Johnson said the discrimination around African-American hair also takes a mental health toll.

“[white women’s hair] is not what grows out of my head. I remember seeing women who don’t look like me,” she said. “But after a while, I grew to love my hair and how it looks.”

State Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton is expected to be the lead sponsor for the bill. She did not respond to a request for comment.