Dana James: Black hairstyles have consequences

Dana James — courtesy of Black Iowa News

“His hair is disgusting.”

“He shouldn’t be allowed to work here with that hair.”

“It’s not professional.”

As I sat working at my desk, I could hear snatches of my coworkers’ conversation about the new Black employee’s locs. If my former coworkers had worked in human resources, it’s doubtful he’d have ever been hired — all because of the hair that grows from his scalp.

Anti-Black racism and hair-based discrimination is nothing new — from this country’s founding, through the Civil Rights Movement and to today. Employers have used Black hairstyles to reject and fire Black employees. Schools have disciplined and expelled Black students because of their hair. Discrimination pilfers income from Blacks’ wallets, and microaggresive behavior can leave lasting scars. There’s the white school staffer who cut a biracial child’s hair, and the referee who chopped a Black wrestler’s locs.

Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert in February referred to the CROWN Act as the “bad hair” bill before it failed at the federal level (on March 18, the bill passed the U.S. House for the second time, but still faces uncertainty in the Senate). Labeling Black hair as “bad” or unprofessional is offensive, harmful and just wrong.

That’s why Blacks across the country have pushed for the CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, at the federal, state and local levels. The law prohibits race-based hair discrimination and protects those who wear braids, locs, twists, Bantu knots and protective natural hairstyles.

For a second year, Iowa lawmakers introduced legislation to prohibit race-based hair discrimination but the bills, HF2110 and HF2513, did not make it out of committee before funnel week, which means the bills won’t advance any further. Legislators vow to try again next year.

The CROWN Act is already law in 14 states and 30 cities, so far, according to the website, and legislation is pending in other states, including:

The Minnesota House of Representatives passed the Act in March, which would add hairstyle and texture to a provision in the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The Senate is currently reviewing the legislation in committee.

The Tennessee House of Representatives is reviewing the Act, which already passed in the Senate.

Cities in West Virginia are working to pass the Act, which was defeated statewide. At least three cities, however, have passed the law so far.

Kentucky’s House Judiciary Committee passed the Act on March 10.

Natural hairstyles reflect Black culture and Blacks’ proud, rich history, but discrimination is still a widespread problem, according to the 2021 Dove CROWN Research Study for Girls:

53% of Black mothers whose daughters have experienced hair discrimination said it occurred as early as age 5.

86% of Black teens have experienced discrimination based on their hair by age 12.

100% of Black elementary school girls in predominantly white schools report experiencing hair bias and discrimination by age 10.

Black women are 1.5 times more likely than whites to be sent home from work because of their hair.

Black women are 80% more likely than whites to agree with this statement: I have to change my hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.

Shade Burgs, a Black man from Des Moines, began wearing locs about 16 years ago. His waist-length hair garners comments from many people — including unwanted comments from white strangers. They reach out and touch his hair without his permission and make disparaging remarks.

“I’ve experienced discrimination in the workplace, housing and just life in general,” he said. “I’ve been stopped by white folks and asked: ‘Is that really your hair?’ and ‘Doesn’t that start to stink because you can’t wash it?’”

During a job interview, he was told: “We would rather present a more professional image for the company.” Then, when he and a friend tried to rent an apartment, the property owner said he wanted a more traditional family that would fit into the neighborhood’s “dynamic,” Burgs said.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

Courtesy of Shade Burgs

It doesn’t matter whether he’s wearing dressy clothes and expensive shoes, his locs bring both compliments and bias.

“I have literally 10-20 experiences like this,” he said.

For a professional photo, I donned a wavy wig and a T-shirt that read: I ♥ being Black. When I posted the photo on social media, white men said they doubted I was a proud Black woman because I didn’t display my natural hair. Their misperceptions are reflective of their simultaneous fascination with and condemnation of Blacks’ appearance and a misplaced desire to micromanage our very existence. Like many Black people, I’ve had to define beauty on my own terms — while recognizing that Black hairstyles will always have consequences in a society steeped in anti-Black racism.

My former coworkers unabashedly shared their racist comments about a Black coworker’s locs. What the CROWN Act would do in Iowa is prevent them from using their racism to discriminate.

Dana James wears her hair however she pleases and doesn’t need you to cosign not one strand. James is founder of Black Iowa News. This article was published in Little Village (Central Iowa) issue 001.