Like most Black Americans, Black Minnesotans have had to make the choice at one point in time or another: What can I do with my hair to move more easily through the world?
“I woke up at 2 in the morning once and just kind of cut it off,” said Jessica Winnie of Minneapolis, a teacher and founder of the Minnesota Black Box. “It was empowering. I just had a moment of, ‘I need the weight off of me.'”
In recent years, 44 states have considered or signed into law various versions of the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair (CROWN) Act, which protects against discrimination based on hair texture or style. This includes Minnesota, whose version of the bill was passed by its House of Representatives earlier this year.
The bill’s author and chief House sponsor, Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis, said the passing of the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair (CROWN) Act is especially important this year, “where we have seen attacks on our fundamental rights and freedoms.”
“I think it’s actually really important that we have a bill like the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair (CROWN) Act that says, ‘Yes, you can come as you naturally are to work and to school, and that you shouldn’t be discriminated against because of your hair,'” she said.
Led by several Black female lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the U.S. House passed the federal Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair (CROWN) Act earlier this year. The legislation—which has been publicly supported by the Biden administration—is awaiting action in the Senate.
“It’s really important for us to do it federally, and we’re going to keep working at it,” Omar said. “It’s really exciting for us to have legislation that reinforces that it is OK to be Black. … We are just excited that the world is changing in a way to recognize the beauty in all the forms that Black folks come in, into this world.”
There is endless anecdotal evidence and various studies that show examples and effects of hair discrimination, especially in Black women, who are 80 percent more likely to change their hair in order to “fit in” in an office environment, according to a study by Dove (thecrownact.com), an advocacy group that helped launch the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair (CROWN) Coalition.
Black women with natural hairstyles are more likely to be deemed unprofessional, unkempt and incompetent due to their appearance. Even when they get their foot in the door, they are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace due to their hair, according to Dove.
University of Minnesota law professor Jill Hasday, who specializes in anti-discrimination and constitutional law, said that there is value to the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair (CROWN) Act beyond creating legal remedies for discrimination.
The Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair (CROWN) Act “is also this moment of education, to talk about why it’s inappropriate to have that kind of discrimination,” she said. “I think that’s also a significant value of this push.”
The Star Tribune spoke with three Twin Cities women about their experience with their hair and what the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair (CROWN) Act means to them.
Name: Lawrina Gaye, 25.
Occupation: Stylist at the Beauty Lounge MPLS.
“Whenever I was younger, I remember [my mom] would always be like, ‘Oh, mama, your hair is supposed to be really big. It’s supposed to reach the sky.’ So growing up, I never got a relaxer, and I’ve never chemically processed my hair in any way. [My mom taught me] that your hair being straight is not how it’s supposed to look. ‘There’s something wrong if your hair is straight.’ And so I grew to have a very big self-love for my hair.
“My hair is probably one of my favorite things about me. It has always served as a very big part of my identity growing up. … I’ve never been turned away from my hair. Because of the teachings and grooming that my mom had about my hair when I was younger, I was very unaware until high school about the struggles that women go through here.
“I just would like [women] to be able to exercise our creative rights, since they take away so many other things that we can do creatively. I feel like it’s silly that we would even need to have this conversation. And it’s sad.
“Your hair is your crown. I think you should be proud of it. I think you should be able to do whatever you want with it.”
Name: Taylor Love, 21.
Occupation: Fourth-year strategic communications major at the University of Minnesota.
“Growing up, I never really knew what to do with my hair. I started to get relaxers in maybe second or third grade because everybody around me had straight hair. I kind of always thought that that was the only acceptable way to appear publicly.”
“I think it was probably not even until the eighth or ninth grade when I realized that I could just wear my hair naturally. … I was very self-conscious about it because I would get comments. I went to predominantly white institutions my whole life and [I would get] weird or aggressive comments about how big my hair was and how fuzzy it was. People are like, ‘Have you ever tried straightening it?’
“I personally have not had the experience of being told that I can’t wear my hair a certain way. But I do think that any law that prohibits discrimination isn’t really going to stop what is the most common culprit, like the micro-aggressive comments. Like, ‘Oh, you’re so brave to wear your hair like that. It’s such a statement.’ Stuff like that really, I feel, goes a little bit deeper than just saying, ‘You can’t wear your hair like that.’
“Hopefully that [legislation] sets a precedent and kind of creates a culture surrounding the acceptability of Black hair and how it’s completely fine and normal to wear your hair the way it comes out of your head.”
Name: Jessica Winnie, 45.
Occupation: Teacher and founder of the Minnesota Black Box, a business that sends boxes of products from Black-owned businesses to subscribers.
“I had to find a love for my hair [when I was growing up], and, at least from my experience, natural hair was not promoted. You didn’t see it on TV, it wasn’t in the media.
“Especially for Black women, hair is this magical thing. It represents you. … It blows me away that we still live in a society where the mainstream has this, to me, very white supremacist lens to say that whatever hair you’re wearing is not appropriate for ‘this workplace’ or not appropriate in ‘this school.’
“I think it’s important to have protection against discrimination. But it’s just like, what type of a world do we live in? That we have to put these things in practice? It’s kind of embarrassing to me, and as a nation. … What does my hair have to do with the job that I’m going to be doing? Or the education that I’m going to receive? Are you going to, you know, especially as a teacher, are you going to teach your child differently?”