Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) believes that if more people were educated on the issue of hair discrimination and aware of its negative impact, that would go a long way to banning the practice. And if the bill she introduced in February becomes law, Michigan will join seven other states in the nation to do so.
"Back in 2019, I first introduced the Michigan CROWN Act, [Creating an Open and Respectable Workplace for Natural Hair], which would essentially prohibit discrimination on the basis of hair," Anthony said. "And it is something that many individuals are not aware of that happens — and, disproportionately, it does impact people of color. And so, my bill essentially says protective styles, such as twists and braids and locs as well as … kinks and curls and coils associated with race should not be discriminated against."
While the majority of the population may never have heard of hair discrimination, Anthony said it is a top-of-mind issue for many young women of color entering the workforce. They may question whether it's necessary to conform by straightening their hair to land a job or secure a promotion. Oftentimes it is.
Not a cosmetic issue
According to Anthony, "protective styles" are, simply put, the natural way one's hair grows out of one's scalp, styled as twists, braids, curls or other styles. It can protect hair that is particularly kinky or curly from the elements or constant manipulation. And that's why combatting hair discrimination is distinct from asking an employer to alter or eliminate a dress code. For many individuals — Anthony included — wearing one's hair in protective styles is not merely cosmetic: there can be serious health implications from hair manipulation, not least of which is scalp burns from the use of hair straightening chemicals.
"Early in my life, in order for ease and just social acceptance, I would chemically straighten my hair," Anthony reported. "But soon after, when I started to get a little older, my doctor informed me that the chemicals we used to straighten my hair could have been attributing to the fibroids that were growing in my body. So I decided to stop chemically straightening my hair. It wasn't just a beauty preference to stop chemically straightening my hair; it also was a matter of health."
As another example, Anthony recounted the experience of a Lansing woman who was told, point-blank, that in order to get ahead she must change her appearance.
"One young woman … from the journalism field, worked for a local news station and has these gorgeous curls," Anthony said. "She was working behind the scenes, behind the camera. And ultimately, [she] wanted to be promoted to on-camera talent, to be one of the anchors or reporters. [She] was explicitly told, in order to receive that promotion, she was either going to have to chemically straighten her hair or start to wear wigs because it didn't align with the station's 'professional brand.'"
Anthony added the result was twofold: It was a blow to the woman's self-esteem and also to her future job prospects. Ultimately, she left to explore other career opportunities.
"Again, it all falls back on not only the economic impact that this has on individuals, but also mental, and, quite honestly, emotional and health-related impact that his has on individuals," Anthony explained.
Of particular concern is the toll that hair discrimination can have on young people, Anthony said. Perhaps they can't have their class pictures taken because their hair is in braids, or they can't play sports if they wear their hair in locs. Last year in Texas, a young man was suspended from high school and told he couldn't graduate because of the way he wore his hair.
"These are real things that are happening and it's really unfortunate but that's what the law is intended to [remedy]," Anthony said. "It's intended to tackle these things once and for all."
Specifically, hair discrimination would be tackled by amending the part of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act that names race as a protected class. The proposed amendment would read as follows:
"Race" is inclusive of traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles. For purposes of this definition, "protective hairstyles" includes, but is not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.
Moment or movement?
Seven states plus a number of municipalities already ban hair discrimination, while several others are considering such legislation. Not only that, many schools are beginning to reconsider their racist dress codes that address certain hairstyles. Here in Michigan, Ingham County recently became the first to adopt a resolution modeled after Anthony's bill that would ban hair discrimination in county government.
Anthony is a former Ingham County commissioner who maintains a strong relationship with the commission. Regarding their volunteer equal opportunity committee, she said,
"They were inspired by the CROWN Act that I introduced at the state level and said we need to be tackling this issue locally while this is moving across at the state level. And so they recommended that the board of commissioners adopt a similar resolution in Ingham County that would basically ban [hair] discrimination in county government. So an individual would apply for a job, go for a promotion [and] their hair could not be a factor in terms of their ability to be hired or promoted or contribute to their termination."
Because banning hair discrimination is gaining traction nationwide, Anthony believes this is not just a moment, but a movement. She's seen change since she first introduced legislation in 2019.
"With so many communities like Ingham County, declaring racism as a public health crisis, we've seen very difficult and courageous conversations around race and race relations in the past year, I think there is momentum," Anthony said. "I think individuals on both sides of the aisle are looking for opportunities to be on the right side of history. Not just talking the talk about inclusivity, but also walking the walk: actually putting in tangible legislation that is designed to make the state open and inclusive for everyone."
Furthermore, Anthony said she is encouraged that the bill, House Bill 4275, has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. That committee has taken on social justice issues and criminal justice reform.
"I do think that there is an opportunity and an appetite to finally move forward on this," Anthony said.
'Cracking open' ELCRA
LGBTQ+ Michiganders have long called upon the state Legislature to amend ELCRA in a way that would extend protections for their community, while Anthony's bill would extend rights largely to communities of color by amending another part of the civil rights law. She had a few ideas about why there's been resistance by politicians to expand protections to marginalized groups.
"It's a mixed bag," Anthony suggested. "I think some of it is ignorance, and a part of the work that I try to do is storytelling. And uplifting the issues … like hair discrimination: educating people on this topic in hopes of first changing hearts and minds, and then working through the legislative strategy."
Anthony said it's important for all marginalized groups to uplift each other's issues.
"Any time I'm talking about hair discrimination and this work, I'm always coupling it with: 'And we also need to be tackling the issues facing our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters.' You can do both. They are not mutually exclusive. And as we're going to crack open Elliott-Larsen, let's do it all. It's all-important. That's my hope.
"Especially in light of everything that's happening in the world, we can do this as a state," she continued. "We can actually lift up all of these communities and finally make it a state that is inclusive for everybody."
To learn more about the MiCROWN Act, visit MiCROWN.org. Advocates still require 10,000 signatures in support of Rep. Anthony's legislation.