AK Wright feels lucky that, as a doctoral student in feminist studies, she doesn’t have to worry about her dreadlocks prompting discrimination. But in a corporate environment, she thinks her hairstyle might draw more scrutiny.
“I feel like there’s always been an understanding that black hair, the way how it comes naturally, is not professional,” said Wright, 25, who attends the University of Minnesota. “And [a belief that] it’s unkempt and unclean … hair discrimination is just a part of the history of white supremacy.”
A measure before the Minnesota Legislature would ban discrimination based on hair textures and styles commonly associated with blacks, such as braids, locs and twists. The proposal follows the recent passage of laws banning hair discrimination in California, New Jersey and New York to send a message that blacks should not have to conform their hair to Eurocentric standards to be accepted in schools and workplaces.
The issue even came up during Sunday night’s Academy Awards broadcast, when director Matthew A. Cherry mentioned race-based hair discrimination when he accepted an Oscar for his short film “Hair Love,” about a father learning to do his daughter’s hair. DeAndre Arnold attended the Oscars as Cherry’s guest after making national headlines when he was told he could not walk at his high school graduation in Texas unless he cut his dreadlocks — and he refused.
The Crown Act, as the legislation is known nationally, has been introduced in Congress and 22 state legislatures; the Colorado House passed a hair discrimination ban Wednesday. A survey of white and black women commissioned by backers of the Crown Act found that black women are 80% more likely to agree that they have to change their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.
State Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, sponsored the measure in Minnesota and said employers should be OK with employees’ natural hair and “that braids or twists or dreadlocks shouldn’t be a determination about whether or not you are hired.”
Moran, who wears her hair in braids, said she hopes that with more education, “people will not see us as different, or your natural hair as inappropriate or ugly — that it would be more acceptable.”
Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights Rebecca Lucero testified in favor of the bill at a Thursday House committee meeting.
It wasn’t the first discussion of hair discrimination in Minnesota. In 2013, the state Department of Human Rights filed a discrimination complaint on behalf of former employees of a client of the Salvation Army’s adult addiction-recovery program who had been fired for wearing dreadlocks, cornrows, Afros and other black hairstyles. The Salvation Army’s ban on those styles was discriminatory “on its face,” then-Commissioner Kevin Lindsey stated.
After decades of straightening her hair, Linda Garrett-Johnson of Apple Valley discovered her strands falling out in the sink. She had a corporate job and was “petrified” to go to the office with an Afro, but felt she had no other choice.
“As black women, we are taught to feel like wearing our natural hair is something to be ashamed of, so we cover it up by flat-ironing it to make ourselves look like — I hate to say it — our white counterparts,” Garrett-Johnson said.
Meredith Moore Crosby, a Mendota Heights resident, recalled how the first time she felt comfortable wearing her hair naturally was when she attended Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C. Now she’s a leadership coach working with black women who wonder how their hair will affect their aspirations in corporate America.
“This is a real issue they struggle with. Do I need to change my identity to get a job … to advance in that job?” she said.
Melissa Taylor wore her hair naturally to her job at Target, but she understands why some other black women don’t — especially to interviews — because they want the focus to be on their performance. At 34, she also thinks people of her generation feel freer to wear their hair naturally than their mothers and grandmothers did.
She left the corporate world to open Beauty Lounge Minneapolis, where she trains all the stylists to work on all types of hair and hopes to encourage more conversations and understanding among women of different races. But Taylor, who wears her own hair in crochet braids, is optimistic about the natural hair movement.
Women don’t want to take the health risks of using chemical relaxers, she noted, and are saying, “This is who I am and I’m proud to wear my hair as it grows out of my head.”
Velma Korbel, director of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, said she wore her hair in dreadlocks in protest after talk radio host Don Imus’ slur about the black women on the Rutgers University basketball team. She said she wanted to show younger employees that it was OK to wear their hair in a natural style.
She said the legislation is about normalizing blackness in a way that whiteness has always been normalized in American society — and it’s about way more than hair.
“Black people who have this kinky, curly hair like me, to have that be sort of weaponized and used against us, it is just tragic,” said Korbel, who now wears her hair in a short Afro.
Steven Belton, president and CEO of the Urban League Twin Cities, said passing the legislation would show “our identity, our culture, our way of presenting ourselves matters, and is valued, and that the state of Minnesota is willing to put its legislative oomph and power behind saying, ‘We will protect your right to be who you are.’ ”
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210