The CROWN Act: Banning Race-Based Hair Discrimination
with Adjoa B. Asamoah
Many Black women wear their hair in its natural state as a means of self-expression, to connect with cultural roots, and to limit chemical exposure due to health concerns. However,it is currently legal to discriminate against a person in the workplace because of their natural or protective hairstyle in 31 states. According to a 2019 Dove study, Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair.
Racial equity activist Adjoa B. Asamoah joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss the CROWN Act – legislation that prohibits race-based hair discrimination in the workplace, schools, and public accommodations.
January 30, 2023
Anderson: Black women are more than 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair, according to a recent study by Dove. Today, 19 states have enacted laws to prohibit discrimination based on natural hair. And legislation has garnered support from both state and federal legislators. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. These laws protect people from being discriminated against in schools and workplaces because of their hair texture or style. And joining me to talk about all of this is Adjoa B. Asamoah, a racial equity strategist on the forefront of the nationwide CROWN Act movement. Thank you so much for being here.
Asamoah: Thank you so much for having me. It's a true honor.
Anderson: So, we want to start with first things first. What is the CROWN Act? Explain that for people who aren't familiar with it.
Asamoah: The CROWN Act is an acronym that stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair to, of course, include our protective styles. When passed and enacted, it becomes law. And the law actually extends statutory protection to our hair under the current classification of race. It's historic in that prior to the CROWN Act, our hair was not considered a racial characteristic because it's something that can be changed. But our argument is just because I can change it doesn't mean that I should have to. So, for example, I'm wearing a blowout today, but I'm 100% natural. But I've also worn an afro. I've rocked Marley twists. I've done braids. And so we are fighting to preserve and protect our right to rock our crowns however we see fit.
Anderson: And how common is discrimination based on hair? I mean, what kind of stories have you heard? What kind of cases are there about this?
Asamoah: Much more common than many people think. For example, you are an on-air personality. So many people have reached out to share that they have been told that they are going to get passed over for a promotion, that they have had offers of employment rescinded, and that they really can't be upwardly mobile because of their hair, which is unreal, because oftentimes we are in these environments that are supposed to have these race-neutral standards, but they're really more Eurocentric in that they are perpetuating the same racial inequities that we are seeking to address. And so if you are going into a workplace with many corporations and government entities alike, and you're told that the way that your hair grows out of your head is not welcome here, it's unacceptable, that is a problem. And so we are challenging those standards and challenging grooming codes to ensure that people can actually show up as their whole selves.
Anderson: So it's not just adults, though, who are experiencing this, too. I mean, I'm wondering about children and what they're facing at school, for example.
Asamoah: As I think about the work that I have done nationwide at the local, state, and federal levels as the strategist, social impact and legislative behind this movement, I am thinking about a little boy who was told that he could not participate in his graduation ceremony because he rocked locs, which for him was a display of cultural pride. I'm thinking about a little girl who was turned around from school for rocking braids and told that her braids were a violation of school rules. I'm thinking about a boy who had earned the right to participate in a wrestling match based on his abilities, his talents, and then was told that he had to endure his hair being cut with everybody around him, cheering him on, being humiliated, dehumanized, all because he rocked locs. And then lastly, I'll just note, I'm thinking about the Cook twins in Massachusetts who were repeatedly punished for rocking their crowns how they saw fit. It is unacceptable. It is harmful in many ways when you go into a school, the place that's supposed to be welcoming for all, and you are told again that you are not welcome here because of your hair. It is unacceptable. And the damage that's done to one's self-esteem, it's unbelievable.
Anderson: And so the CROWN Act really lays out what is a protected style. Explain what that means.
Asamoah: Yes, so the CROWN Act essentially amends the existing definition of race and the respective statutes to include traits that are historically associated with it, such as hair texture and protective styles. And we define protective styles as including braids, locs, twists, Bantu knots, et cetera. So those styles are included, but not only those styles.
Anderson: Why is there such a deep connection between hair and one's ability to dictate their own style so important for Black women?
Asamoah: Because for so long, we have been bombarded with images of beauty that don't look like us. Right now, if you were to put a "beautiful comma woman" in certain search engines, pictures that look like us would not come up. And so saying that we are able to embrace the full diversity of our hair. Again, you can rocket one way one day and another the next. That becomes critically important for so many people. Our hair is many different things. For some people, it absolutely is a political statement. Hair's my Blackness. For some people, it's an accessory. For other people -- You know, it's different things. And so the ability to be able to embrace the full diversity of our hair, to show up as our authentic selves, to acknowledge our African identity and our African roots without being concerned about being discriminated against and it not being protected, that is critically important. You know, we're now having conversations about racial equity and, you know, entities are talking about their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Well, again, we have to ensure that your policies are consistent with that. And so we're pushing for not just change that's legislative, but change that is cultural. And so this movement, which is also what the CROWN Act is known for being, is really about ensuring that we are able to rock our crowns and show up how we see fit.
Anderson: This is also largely about health and history, isn't it? I mean, explain that for our viewers.
Asamoah: Well, there's been a longstanding problematic practice of racial discrimination in the form of hair discrimination in this country. When you look back to the law, literally, in Louisiana, where we were forced to cover our hair because we were told our hair was ugly and it should not be seen. I mean, there's a long history here. And then when you think about the health implications outside of the economic implications, just the health piece, we see the correlation between using chemical relaxers and uterine fibroids, the correlation between using chemical relaxers and cancer. And so there are countless stories where people are literally struggling with their health. You're talking about constant heat damage, which is not something that we ever want. And then chemically straightening our hair. It's problematic.
Anderson: And how does this all fit into your motivation for really coming up with the CROWN Act? Because that was an inspiration from you, right?
Asamoah: Absolutely, and so I am working with four dynamic women, Esi, Orlena, and Kelli, and we sort of call ourselves the core four. We're the co-creators of the CROWN Coalition. So with a history of working to change things and move the needle as it relates to the law, we considered so many different approaches. And so I personally came up with the idea that the best way to tackle the issue of racial discrimination in the form of hair discrimination was to actually change the law, because this is a civil rights issue. And so I'm very proud to lead the CROWN Act movement on behalf of the CROWN Coalition.
Anderson: And, you know, you made the comment that this is sort of legislative, but it's also very inspirational. And as I look at what your story is, I see many people being inspired by your work. Can you talk to us a little bit about what that looks like and what that's felt like for you?
Asamoah: Yes. I have done race work my entire life. And so even before the CROWN Act, I was working to codify the nation's first office on African-American affairs. So having a life that's been commitment to really moving the needle legislatively and otherwise, it is so heartwarming, inspiring to me to have little girls reach out to me via social media, to share pictures of them in their braids that they used to not feel proud to rock. And so understanding the connection between civic engagement and actually changing laws, people are realizing their power. People who didn't even know who their senators were have reached out to me saying, "I contacted my senator for the first time. I wrote a letter. I testified. I showed up at a hearing." And so for me, yes, absolutely. Changing the law, critically important, but getting people to realize their power and that they are actually people who are part of this society and that the society belongs to all of us and that they can weigh in, either for or against policy, that is most rewarding to me.
Anderson: So where does the CROWN Act stand today, and how likely do you think it will become law at the state or the federal level?
Asamoah: So the CROWN Act has been introduced at the local, state, and federal levels. Our goal is to extend statutory protection to everyone. So it is ideal that this bill will pass and become law at the federal level. There's even support for it from the Biden-Harris administration. Senator Cory Booker has been the original sponsor and has been with us since day one. Our goal is to ensure that this bill passes in both chambers and becomes federal law. I just need to acknowledge, though, that during her tenure as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, the first legislator that I am aware of who actually took action as it relates to race-based hair discrimination is now-Secretary Marcia L. Fudge. She sent a letter to the then-Secretary of Defense calling out the inherent racial and gender bias in some of the proposed bans on hairstyles. And so I just needed to lift her because while she's sitting in another seat now, you know, this work has been happening for a very long time. So it wasn't a law, but it certainly made me believe that it was possible to change the law at the federal level. And so we look forward to passing the CROWN Act at the federal level.
Anderson: Adjoa B. Asamoah, thank you for your work and for being here.
Asamoah: Thank you so much for having me.
Anderson: And thanks to you as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, just log on to ComcastNewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.