Like so many Black women, the topic of hair has always loomed large in my life. I’m a Black biracial woman; my mother was Jewish, and my father (who raised me) was Black. And I can confidently say that neither of my parents had a clue about what to do with my hair and the way it naturally grew. I learned as I grew into adulthood that although my hairstyles wouldn’t define me, they were always something I would have to consider.
And considering how to wear my hair as it is—curly, and sometimes (okay, often) kind of unruly—versus sleek and straight, I run the risk of looking “unprofessional.” Even though I don’t work in a bank or walk into a courtroom as a judge or lawyer or legislate laws, ever since the first time I straightened my hair in junior high school, I noticed the way people commented. They’d say how “beautiful” I looked or how “elegant” when I wore my hair straight—you know, the way Meghan Markle wears her hair or how First Lady Michelle Obama used to wear it until recently. Whereas with my curly hair, people say it looks “cool” or “hip.”
According to a study from a Duke University Fuqua School of Business, CNN reports that Black women who wore their hair naturally were less likely to get job interviews than white women or Black women with straightened hair.
Fast-forward to today, and not only can the way we Black women wear our hair impact our careers, it can also impact our health.
RELATED STORY: Black women can’t afford to f**k around and find out’: Trevor Noah’s parting words on last show
In October, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a study finding that women who use hair straightening chemicals face an increased risk of uterine cancer. And this study follows another NIH study done in 2019 that linked the use of permanent hair dye and chemical straighteners with a higher risk of breast cancer—six times higher for Black women than white women, CNN reports.
Chemically straightening our hair goes back to post-emancipation, when Black people used a mixture of lye, potatoes, and eggs to straighten their hair. Then came along Annie Minerva Malone, a chemist and entrepreneur, who not only invented a hair straightening product that wouldn’t damage women’s hair, but later an entire line of hair care products for Black hair—making her one of America’s first Black millionaires.
The reason Black women have straightened their hair for so many decades is to help them assimilate into white society and protect themselves from innate bias. Sadly, some of those biases are also deeply rooted in Black communities as well, and even though the 1960s gave Black people the freedom and power to wear their afros proudly, trends bounced back, and conservatism in hair and styles reverted to straight and mostly white-looking hair.
This brings us to the CROWN Act, aka “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” which was created in 2019 by Dove, the National Urban League, Color Of Change, and the Western Center on Law & Poverty.
The CROWN Act was designed to “ensure protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools,” the website reads.
According to the CROWN Act website, “Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair,” and 80% of Black women say they feel the need to change their hair from its natural state to “fit in at the office.”
On March 18, 2022, the measure, HR 2116, passed on a vote of 235 to 189 in the House, with 14 Republicans joining all Democrats in supporting the measure. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat from New Jersey. So far, 19 U.S. states have passed the law, with 31 more to go.
The CROWN Act gives Black Americans the freedom to wear their hair however they want without fear of being discriminated against and puts employers on notice about commenting on or judging their employees’ hair.
Hopefully, in the future, beauty aesthetics won’t play a role in determining how Black folks dress or wear their hair, keeping us healthier without harmful chemicals, and comfortable and safe (or at least safer) in our workplaces and in public spaces.