NATURAL HAIR DISCRIMINATION

For decades, LDF has recognized natural hair discrimination as racism by another name. Through advocacy and litigation, LDF has worked to end race-based hair discrimination.

Hair discrimination is rooted in systemic racism, and its purpose is to preserve white spaces. Policies that prohibit natural hairstyles, like afros, braids, bantu knots, and locs, have been used to justify the removal of Black children from classrooms, and Black adults from their employment. With no nationwide legal protections against hair discrimination, Black people are often left to risk facing consequences at school or work for their natural hair or invest time and money to conform to Eurocentric professionalism and beauty standards. 

No one should be targeted for being who they are. The criminalization of Black hairstyles must end. Together with the CROWN Coalition, LDF is fighting to end hair discrimination and push for The CROWN Act to become law in all 50 states.

We’ve compiled a list of FAQs to help you learn more about Black hair, how natural hair discrimination perpetuates systemic racism, and how you can help fight back against natural hair discrimination. Below it, you will find examples of LDF cases related to hair discrimination.

Why is Black hair special?

The exceptional nature of Black hair goes beyond just cultural differences. The elasticity and tight coils of Black hair cause it to have unique needs. The physical attributes make it more susceptible to breakage. It cannot easily be straightened without damaging the hair. Black people often wear “protective hairstyles” like braids, twists, and locs to maintain healthy hair. These hairstyles can be worn for long stretches of time without constant manipulation. The alternative is often to use chemical or heat straighteners that can damage the hair in the short and long term.

Black hair is also an expression of identity and culture. It’s a representation of history and carries deep emotional significance. Historically, Black hair has carried a profound symbolism. Cornrows, locs, twists, afros, bantu knots, and more all have historic connections to Black pride, culture, religion, and history.

Why is Black hair currently in the spotlight?

Black adults, school children and members of the military have long been discriminated against because of their natural hairstyles, such as afros, twists, locs and braids. By penalizing hairstyles that fall outside of Eurocentric norms of beauty, discriminatory grooming policies in schools and workplaces are directly linked to institutional racism.

The increased attention on Black hair is the result of heightened social media conversations and viral news stories, such as FedEx employees suing the company after they were fired for having dreadlocks, De'Andre Arnold, who LDF represents in a lawsuit against the school district that banned him from attending his high school graduation, and Andrew Johnson, a high school wrestler who was forced to cut his hair to compete in a meet.

The work of The CROWN Act coalition partners has also brought national attention to the law. For decades, LDF has worked to combat discriminatory policies that target Black hair, and is an ardent proponent of Crown Act legislation.

How does hair discrimination occur in the workplace?

A recent study by Michigan State University found that African American women face the highest instances of hair discrimination. They are more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair. The study also determined that 80 percent of African American women felt they needed to switch their hairstyle to align with more conservative standards in order to fit in at work.

A separate study by researchers at Duke University found that participants viewed Black hairstyles like afros, twists or braids as less professional. The study determined that Black women with natural hairstyles are less likely to land job interviews than white women or Black women with straightened hair.

How does hair discrimination occur in schools?

Some school policies that ban natural and protective styles are grounds for discipline or removal from school. Because of this, Black students across the country have been asked to cut or straighten their hair to meet dress codes and grooming policies. Some school districts have banned specific Black hairstyles, which prevent students from attending school events like prom, extracurricular and sports activities, and even graduation.

How does hair discrimination impact children?

Black students are more likely to be suspended for discretionary reasons, such as dress code or long hair violations, neither of which have been found to be predictive of student misconduct, according to researchers at Princeton University. These punishments place students on a trajectory towards poor academic performance, leading to higher dropout rates, gang involvement, and getting arrested before the age of 21.

Hair discrimination is rooted in systemic racism and erodes trust between students and the education system that is supposed to care for them. Protective styles, locs, headwraps, and durags are not just vital to the protection of Black hair, they are expressions of culture and identity. Discriminating against Black hair reinforces the othering of Black children and is another way that Black identity is policed.

How do Black people alter their hair for majority white spaces?

Since the late 19th century, some Black people who have more tightly curled hair use chemicals that “relax” or “perm” the hair or heated tools like hair irons or hot combs to straighten their hair. 

For many Black people, altering the texture of their hair is considered essential to social and economic success and reducing tension. Hair straightening has long been seen as a way to assimilate and make those unfamiliar with Black hair more comfortable with their presence.

What is The CROWN Act?

The CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” is a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles. It prohibits discrimination based on natural hair style and texture, such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”

What is the status of The CROWN Act?

As of June 2021, 13 states (CA, NY, NJ, VA, CO, WA, MD, CT, NM, DE, NE, NV, OR) and 28 municipalities have signed The CROWN Act or legislation inspired by The CROWN Act into law. Thirty additional states have pre-filed, filed, or intend to introduce the legislation.

Federal legislation was reintroduced in March 2021 in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 2116) by Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and in the U.S. Senate (S. 888) by Senator Cory Booker.

Why do we need The CROWN Act? Don't other anti-discrimination laws cover this?

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act only prohibits employment discrimination on the bases of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. Other federal laws also create protected classes based on age, disability, pregnancy, familial status, veteran status, and genetic information. Appearance, however, is not a protected characteristic. Federal law only focuses on a person’s immutable – or unchangeable – characteristics.

Despite the legal classification, natural hair discrimination is not appearance bias, but rather a conduit for racial discrimination. The CROWN Act seeks to close gaps in current anti-discrimination legislature.

Where can I find out more about the CROWN Act?

You can find more information about the status and future of hair discrimination legislation at TheCROWNAct.com. The CROWN Coalition, spearheaded by Dove and Unilever, has created a petition to help end hair discrimination in the workplace and schools.

What can employers and schools do to avoid discriminating against natural hair?

Institutions should review their appearance policies and remove references to specifically-prohibited hairstyles, especially ones that refer to Black hairstyles.

Policies that may seem race-neutral can sometimes have a disproportionate impact on Black hair. For instance, a policy that bans dreadlocks could apply to all employees, but would disproportionately affect Black employees or students. Companies should also educate employees and managers on cultural sensitivity regarding natural hair.

How can I be a good ally?

Allies should be open to learning about hair and other physical attributes that are different from their own. They should be open to stand up against behaviors that penalize a particular group. An ally can call out discrimination or policies that negatively affect Black hair. An ally is often poised to draw more attention to discriminatory issues by not letting the aggrieved person stand on their own and by helping to educate their own communities.

My hair has never had anything to do with my behavior or my capacity to learn, but my high school’s grooming policy denied me equal educational opportunities and extracurricular opportunities, including the opportunity to graduate with my peers.

- Deandre Arnold, LDF client

LDF represents DeAndre and his cousin K.B. in a lawsuit challenging Barbers Hill Independent School District’s discriminatory grooming policy. The CROWN Act would establish protections against race-based hair discrimination in the workplace and in k-12 public and charter schools based on hair texture and protective styles. 

LDF Case

Arnold Family v. Barbers Hill Independent School District

filed: 2020

LDF represents Everett De’Andre Arnold, Sandy Arnold, and Cindy Bradford (on behalf of her minor son K.B.) in a lawsuit against Barbers Hill Independent School District (BHISD), located in Mont Belvieu near Houston, Texas. The lawsuit filed in May 2020 challenges BHISD’s hair policy on the basis of race and gender discrimination and First Amendment protections. The lawsuit asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to require BHISD to immediately reinstate De’Andre and K.B. and rescind its discriminatory hair policy. 

Midway through the 2019-20 school year, BHISD changed its dress and grooming code to include a hair length requirement that targeted De’Andre and K.B. based on their race and gender. De’Andre and K.B. were told that they would not be allowed to participate in their regular classes or school activities. For De’Andre and K.B., who had been growing out their locs for years, their hair was a source of pride and an expression of their Black identity. 

The policy was strictly enforced against the two students after Sandy Arnold spoke about its discriminatory impact at a BHISD Board of Trustees meeting. The two students refused to cut their locs to conform to the school’s discriminatory policy, and both were suspended indefinitely and effectively expelled from the school they had attended for their whole lives. Ultimately, De’Andre was banned from attending his own high school graduation.

Unfortunately, in July 2020, the school board voted unanimously against changing the discriminatory policy. However, in August, the Court granted LDF’s request to enjoin enforcement of the policy and allow K.B. to return to classes and school activities while the lawsuit unfolds in court.

In March 2021, LDF filed an amended complaint arguing that, not only did BHISD selectively enforce its discriminatory hair policy to target Black students with uncut locs, but, when the discrimination made the local news, BHISD ramped up enforcement of the hair policy against other students in an apparent attempt to conceal the selective enforcement. In the nine days following the news coverage, BHISD issued more hair policy citations than it had in each of the past three years.

LDF sent a letter to BHISD demanding the district take appropriate steps to improve school climate after it failed – for months – to remove “Black Lives Don’t Matter” graffiti from the high school and removed posters of Vice President Kamala Harris and former First Lady Michelle Obama that students had posted in celebration of Black History Month on the grounds that the posters were divisive. 

After BHISD’s discrimination against De’Andre and K.B. came to light, members of the Texas legislature introduced The CROWN Act to ensure that no one is deprived of educational or economic opportunities because of their hair. De’Andre and LDF Director of Policy Lisa Cylar Barrett both testified at the hearing in support of The CROWN Act in April 2021.

LDF Case

EEOC V. Catastrophe Management Solutions

filed: 2016

In May 2010, Chastity C. Jones applied to work as a customer service representative with Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS), an Alabama company. Ms. Jones wore short dreadlocks throughout the interview process and CMS hired her on the spot. Nevertheless, after Ms. Jones refused CMS Human Resource Manager’s request to cut her dreadlocks, CMS rescinded its offer of employment. In 2013, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against CMS on behalf of Ms. Jones.

On September 15, 2016, an Eleventh Circuit panel ruled that CMS’s refusal to hire Ms. Jones because she wears dreadlocks does not violate Title VII. CMS used a facially neutral grooming policy that in effect gave its preference for hairstyles that suit white hair texture, while prohibiting many natural and protective hairstyles Black hair texture. 

On November 10, 2016, LDF filed an amicus brief in EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. We were joined by the Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center and Professors D. Wendy Greene and Angela Onwuachi-Willig. LDF’s brief argued in support of a petition for rehearing en banc in this case, which considers whether Title VII’s broad mandate to purge the workplace of racial discrimination reaches a policy that trades on Eurocentric conventions of beauty and professionalism.

Like many other Black men and women, dreadlocks are central to Ms. Jones’s sense of self. CMS forced Ms. Jones to choose between gainful employment and remaining true to her racial identity. Our amicus brief argued that, to fulfill its mandate, courts should interpret Title VII expansively to reach every dimension of a person’s racial identity. 

In 2018, LDF petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to review the case. LDF’s petition urged the Court to consider Ms. Jones’ case to correct the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling that departs from established Supreme Court precedent and conflicts with other circuit courts that have decided similar questions, but have reached the correct conclusion. CMS’ notion that locs will become messy, and are therefore unprofessional, is a false racial stereotype that denied an employment opportunity for Ms. Jones. Anti-discrimination laws, like Title VII, were enacted to root out such discriminatory employment practices. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court declined to review.

Shares