Faith Fennidy remembers her 6th grade private school teacher asking her in front of the class if her hair was real or fake.
Fennidy, who is Black, was 11 at the time and had her hair in cornrows. The teacher was reviewing the school dress code and Fennidy was eventually asked to remove her braids for the next time she came to school, she said. Her mother instead changed them into a braided ponytail, which led to the school principal sending her home.
“I trusted my principal, and I just really couldn’t believe that happened to me,” she said.
Now 15, Fennidy recalls how hurt she felt from having her hair be called inappropriate and distracting. And her case isn’t unique: similar cases have popped up of Black students in particular being disciplined for natural hairstyles. One analysis from the Brookings Institution even found that Black students are more likely to be suspended for dress code or long hair violations than their peers. And such discrimination isn’t limited to Black students.
But Fennidy also feels fortunate to now live in a time when a growing number of states and municipalities are passing legislation to protect against such race-based hair discrimination in schools and at work.
At least 17 states have passed a version of the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN Act, with efforts underway to pass a federal law. July 3 marked the anniversary of the first such law to be approved, in California in 2019.
Esi Eggleston Bracey, president of Unilever USA and chief executive of North America Personal Care, is among the leaders of the CROWN Act coalition, which includes representatives from corporations, nonprofits and civil rights organization such as the National Urban League and Color of Change. She spoke with Education Week about why legislation is needed to fight against hair discrimination, where hair discrimination in schools even comes from, and what educators need to know about it all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does hair discrimination mean, especially in a K-12 school environment?
It’s perfectly legal for a school or company to say in many states, and most states, we have a grooming policy that we need employees or students to abide by. And they include hair often in these grooming policies, which say that hair cannot be worn in protective hairstyles, braids, locs, bantu knots, or certain lengths of the hairstyles.
And it’s discrimination because these are hairstyles that are inherent to our identity, and the natural state in which our hair grows from our head. And what that requires by denying those hairstyles is hair that is pressed or straightened, which could be a choice but for that to be required, you need the hardship of chemical treatment, burns from pressing combs, and ways to manipulate our hair from its natural state.
And our hair is our identity, our hair is us. To be clear, hair discrimination is racial discrimination and should be protected under pre-existing civil rights legislation from the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
How does legislation like the CROWN Act address hair discrimination and why is it needed?
The art of the CROWN act is it makes hair texture and styles a protected trait under pre-existing civil rights legislation, namely the Fair Employment and Housing Act [in California]. The Crown Act makes it protected. So all of the existing legislation gets utilized so that you can’t discriminate against us for hair the same way you can’t discriminate against me because I’m a woman, or me because I’m a Black person. You cannot deny me access. These grooming laws become illegal.
What such laws are already in effect, and what are the next steps when it comes to this type of legislation?
We have 17 states that have either passed the CROWN Act or legislation inspired by it. What I mean by that is in New Mexico, they have a version of the CROWN Act, not exactly the CROWN Act, that also allows for native hair dress. So each of the local states and municipalities in some cases have leveraged the CROWN Act protection based on their constituents.
We also have 43 municipalities who have passed the CROWN Act. So in certain states we may not have the legislation passed, but there are certain communities that have the legislation passed. We also have the CROWN Act passed in the United States House of Representatives. This is on our way to federal legislation.
We [first] introduced it to Congress in March of 2019. The second time we passed the House of Representatives, but our big job to be done is to get it passed by the Senate and then signed into law by the president. And this will prohibit hair texture and style discrimination at the federal level. Our ambition is to make sure we continue this work until the CROWN Act is in place and each and every of the 50 states through state-based and federal legislation.
What should teachers know about the effects of hair discrimination on students?
Our hair is our identity, and it starts young. When a child is denied access to school, or shamed in a way that it’s inherent to their identity, it does, in many cases, irreparable harm. We’ve interviewed many adult women and men about their confidence and challenges in this world. And so many of those stories go back to hair discrimination that they experienced when they were a child.
The horrible names that natural hair and texture were called, and the way it made them feel ‘“ess than.” We all know that self esteem and confidence at the early ages, K through 12, is essential. And what we see is that hair discrimination starts as early as [age] 5. Fifty-three percent of the young people we surveyed, young girls in particular, identified that hair discrimination started as early as 5.
And then by the time they’re teenagers, you find 80 percent of girls—in predominantly white institutions particularly—are experiencing hair discrimination. Dove [a Unilever brand specializing in body and hair products] sponsored the CROWN research study for girls, and quantified this.
Can you talk a little bit more about the history of hair discrimination and why it exists?
I think it stems from systemic bias, unconscious bias, and institutional racism. It starts back from slavery.
You know, in African society, hair was sacred. It was a cultural and spiritual symbol for us, as Africans and ancient African communities fashioned their hair for more than just style. Throughout the continent a person’s hairstyle could tell you a lot about who they were and where they came from. So through slavery coming to America, a way to keep slaves docile and disconnected from that history was to wrap our hair down. It was not giving us access to the hair and that story. And that’s persisted in many ways, you know, over 400 years throughout slavery and after slavery. Our hair is a manifestation of a way to perpetuate the institution of racism and bias, unfortunately.
And so, that shows up in the schools because we’re part of a broader system, where culturally certain hairstyles are viewed as a standard and our hair texture is viewed culturally as untidy, unkept, unprofessional, unscholarly. And that is perpetuated in the white community, but not just in the white community. And that’s just a function of how systemic racism exists, perceptions associated with certain hairstyles.
So what we try to do with the CROWN Act and creating the legislation is normalizing our natural hairstyles and texture, so that our hairstyles can be viewed as professional. Our hairstyles can be viewed as scholarly, because you see all of us as scholars and professionals wearing the textured hairstyles.