By: Jordan Schmitt; Editor in Chief
Among the many topics discussed during Athens City Council on Monday, February 8, one important discussion stuck out: hair.
Council member Micah McCarey proposed an update to the city’s anti-discrimination legislation that would provide additional protections against race-based discrimination involving hair textures and styles.
The proposed ordinance protects, “protective and cultural hairstyles – includes but is not limited to braids, locs, cornrows, bantu knots, afros, and twists, whether or not hair extensions or treatments are used to create or maintain any such styles, and whether or not hair is adorned by hair ornaments, beads, or headwraps.”
The legislation that member McCarey proposed is also taking hold on a national level.
“We won’t be the first city in the state of Ohio to make this kind of change, it was Columbus, Ohio that really set the example in January of 2021,” McCarey said. “There will need to be an educational component to this.”
House Bill 535, otherwise known as the CROWN Act, is awaiting approval in Columbus. Only eight states have taken the steps to pass the act. The CROWN acronym stands for: “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” The act aims to prohibit denying employment or educational opportunities due to an individual’s hair style.
The history behind hair discrimination
Hair-based discrimination toward people of color dates back to times of slavery and is deeply rooted in systemic racism. In pre-colonial Africa, the style in which natural hair was worn was closely tied to identity. Transatlantic slave trade, however, forced Black people to conform to the standards of whites.
Throughout slavery, Black men and women were forced to abandon taking care of their hair.
As the era of slavery moved further into the past, notions of Black hair remained stigmatized, particularly in the workforce. Wearing natural styles and textures is often deemed unprofessional. In the 1950s and 60s, keeping one’s hair in a natural afro style was a source of rebellion for the Black community.
Legislation such as this aims to remove the stigma surrounding natural Black hair and not used as a basis of discrimination – in the workplace or beyond.
From the Army to Athens
The United States Army banned hairstyles of twists, locs, and cornrows until 2017. These styles are often deemed “unprofessional” even though they are a common practice of grooming one’s hair. Obviously, this is a common hairstyle for communities of color, and the policy was innately discriminatory. The Army also now accepts hijabs, beards and turbans that are required by religion to be worn by Muslim individuals.
Laws that include styles and textures of hair within their umbrella of discrimination definitions will prevent policies such as this from existing. We must define hair-based discrimination as a method of maintaining systemic racism from school systems to employers across the nation and in small towns like Athens.
“Sometimes we have to step forward and be a leader in the state and not wait, certainly for the state, to do things that we’re not sure exactly what they’re going to do,” said Councilmember Sam Crowl. “And I think that we can stand up for our rights for home rule by passing ordinances like this and making a statement, if nothing else, about our values.”