In 2017, Fresno mother Erika Paggett got a phone call from her son’s school informing her that he’d been pulled out of class. Her 8th grader hadn’t been disruptive or gotten into a fight, but the teacher said his new haircut was a distraction to other kids.
Her son had recently gotten criss-crossed lines shaved into his hair, but the school dress code prohibited razor cuts.
“It’s common practice in the African American culture to get what’s called a lineup, and that’s done with a razor,” Paggett said. “Just like in society, there’s this preconceived notion that if you look one way, the perception is that you’re going to behave a certain way.”
Starting this January, schools will be forbidden from punishing students for wearing certain hairstyles “historically associated with race,” including afros, braids, twists and locks. Under a new law, workplace dress codes and policies cannot call out these hairstyles, and employers cannot hire, promote or terminate workers based on hairstyles associated with race.
Abre’ Conner, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said state and federal laws already prohibit school and workplace discrimination on the basis of race. But she said hairstyles aren’t specifically addressed in those policies, leaving room for racially biased interpretations. The new law, named the CROWN Act for “Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair,” is an added protection.
California is the first state to pass a law addressing black hairstyles, though other states — including New York and New Jersey — have policies in the works.
When Paggett’s son was disciplined for his haircut, she wrote an open letter and worked with the ACLU to get the dress code changed. The school superintendent issued a statement expressing regret over the situation. But she said it had a profound impact on her son, who didn’t want to go to school after the incident.
Research shows that an achievement gap persists between California’s African American and white children. Many experts believe that’s due to higher rates of suspension and expulsion for black students.
Paggett is hopeful the new California law will prevent unnecessary discipline against black students and workers in the future.
“To criminalize someone’s existence by saying the way that your hair grows out of your head is unprofessional, to me that seems unfair,” she said. “Who’s to say braids can’t be professional? That’s a matter of opinion.”
A survey of 2,000 women from personal care company Dove found that black women were 80% more likely than other women in the study to change their natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work. Dove supported the bill and it’s author, democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell, D- Los Angeles.
Shamica Hutt, a Sacramento hair stylist, said she meets lots of women who are cautious about wearing natural black hairstyles.
“It’s not looked at as being neat, or the appearance isn’t considered professional,” she said. “When the law changes it’ll be a little easier, we’ll see how people react and respond to not having those standards put on them.”
Hutt also runs a nonprofit that helps connect low-income African American students to free hair care. She says students can’t concentrate when they’re worried about being bullied or disciplined for their hairstyles.
“It’s hard to learn when you’re worried about insecurities,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize how much hair affects black children.”
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