ERN DC Testimony: Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act of 2020

Committee on Government Operations:

B23-0970 – Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act of 2020

November 18, 2020

Jess Giles

Deputy Director

Education Reform Now DC

Greetings, Chairperson Brandon Todd and members of the Committee on Government Operations. My name is Jess Giles. I am a Ward 7 resident, equity advocate, and the Deputy Director of Education Reform Now DC (ERN DC). ERN DC is a non-profit organization that fights to ensure that DC’s public education system justly and equitably serves all students. We are committed to advancing racial equity in public education, closing opportunity gaps, and regularly evaluating education reforms to see if they are working as intended. I am pleased to provide testimony on Bill 23-0970 – Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act of 2020.

While the Human Rights Act of 1977 (Act) has long protected hairstyles and beards, B23-0970 adds “protective hairstyle” to the list of protected traits. Protective hairstyle is defined as “immutable characteristics of a hair texture associated with race, including braids, cornrows, locks, afros, curls, twists, and knots.” While these types of hairstyles are already covered under the Act, it’s important that the DC Council sends a strong and affirming message to Black women that they matter, and that they will no longer be “disrespected,” “unprotected,” and “neglected” in America or, specifically, Washington, DC.[1]

Protective Hairstyles Are An Immutable Characteristic of People of African Descent

Africans have worn their hair in braids since 3500 BC. Many African tribes used braided hairstyles as a unique way to identify their tribe. Braid patterns and hairstyles could indicate a person’s tribe, age, marital status, wealth, power, and religion. During transatlantic enslavement between the 16th and 19th centuries, traffickers shaved the heads of African women in a brutal attempt to strip them of their humanity and culture. Since the end of the enslavement of African Americans, many Black women have survived by altering their hair in order to assimilate better into white society. However, during the 1970s this became less of a practice as “Black empowerment” movement and thus the afro made a resurgence into Black popular culture. A recent study by Mentel on the Black Haircare Market Report “reveals that Black women are most likely to wear their hair natural (no chemicals) with no-heat styling (40%) and natural with heat styling (33%).”[2]

Why Protective Hairstyles Are Important

Brushes, combs, blow dryers, hot combs, curling irons, perms, and flat irons are all tools to manipulate Black hair. While there is nothing inherently “bad” about them they can cause irreparable breakage and damage to naturally curly hair. The purpose of protective styling is to reduce the ongoing manipulation of Black hair, encourage growth retention, and protect the ends of strands to reduce knots and tangles. Protective hairstyles are essential for the health of Black hair and no less important than shampoo and conditioner. There are many versions of protective hairstyles but they more or less fall into the categories of braids, cornrows, locks, afros, curls, twists, and knots.

America’s Long History of Black Hair Discrimination

In 1786, Governor of Esteban Rodriguez Miró in Louisiana passed the Tignon Laws which required women of color to cover their hair with a knotted headdress and refrain from adorning it with jewels when out in public.[3] The United States’ Army Regulation 670-1 in 2014 included multiple rules that banned hairstyles such as cornrows, twists and braids that are worn specifically by Black women.[4] In 2006, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) included guidance in its Compliance Manual that race is not limited to the color of one’s skin and includes other physical and cultural characteristics associated with race.[5] Unfortunately, federal courts are not bound by this guidance, so it leaves room for employers to engage in unchecked Black hair discrimination.

I have personally experienced Black hair discrimination in Washington, DC. Several years ago, I worked in the private industry and, like I often did back then, I straightened my hair while interviewing to ensure I received a fair shot during the hiring process. I got the job but after several months, countless hours of hairstyling, and a few hundred dollars later, I decided to wear braids. One particular day, my (white male) employer at the time unexpectedly rubbed my braids without consent, frowned in disgust, and said they were “interesting” in front of my colleagues. I did not say or do anything because I wanted to change jobs and needed a good reference. Unfortunately, my experiences in the workforce are not unique. A 2020 study by researchers at Michigan State University and Duke University found bias against Black women with natural hairstyles in job recruitment across four studies.[6] Black women with curly Afros, braids, or twists were perceived as less professional than Black women with straightened hair, particularly in industries where norms dictate a more “conservative appearance.”

A Word about Black Girls

From the time Black girls are small they are inundated with messages that their appearance is unacceptable. These messages are reiterated in our public school system. Schools with rigid dress codes can unknowingly perpetuate racist and sexist enforcement that unfairly targets Black girls, causes low self-esteem, promotes rape culture, and fuels school pushout. Dress codes that include hairstyle restrictions are no different. According to the National Women’s Law Center, which conducted interviews with students, parents, and school administrators and looked at the dress code policies from 29 public (DCPS and charter) DC high schools in the school year 2018-2019, found that almost half of these schools banned hair wraps, hats, or other head coverings.[7] While these are not restrictions on protective hairstyles per se, they still limit Black hair in a way that does not promote learning and foster mental wellbeing, and can unfortunately negatively impact school climate. Our local education agencies should reconsider these policies.

In conclusion, ERN DC supports this bill and encourages the DC Council to pass it. Thank you for allowing me to testify on this important legislation.

[1] On May 22, 1962, Malcolm X delivered a speech in Los Angeles, California.

[2] Mentel. “US Black Haircare Market Report” 

[3] Essence. “The Tignon Laws Set The Precedent For The Appropriation and Misconception Around Black Hair.” (2018).

[4] The Washington Post. “Army’s ban on twists, other natural hairstyles sparks calls of racial bias.” (2014).

[5] NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Background Resources on Black Hair Discrimination and Bias.”

[6] Duke University Fuqua School of Business. “Research Suggests Bias Against Natural Hair Limits Job Opportunities for Black Women.” (2020)

[7] Currently, the “Student Fair Access to School Amendment Act of 2018” law prohibits out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions, including dress code violations but students can still be held in-school suspension, punished, or harassed.