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CROWN Act would ban discrimination based on Black hairstyles in Ohio

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Thursday, January 25, 2024   

By Faith Fistler for Kent State NewsLab.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan.

The first time Tyana Barton was singled out because of her hair was when she was told to straighten it before a dance recital.

"That was like the first time in maybe 10 years I've ever had to straighten my hair. So I was like, distraught about that," Barton said. "And everybody was just like, 'it's not that serious'. And I'm like, 'it is, though. It is.'"

At the predominantly white studio in Dayton, Barton's instructor wanted all the dancers to look the same for a particular performance. Barton, being the only Black dancer, was asked to straighten her afro-textured hair to comply.

"I'm looking at all of these other girls with long hair, and it's just like perfectly straight. And then I'm having to go over my hair several times with the straightener just to get it to any form. It made me super emotional," said Barton, who is now a fashion merchandising student at Kent State University.

In Ohio, there is no statewide legal protection against hair-based discrimination from employers and schools. Individuals can be told to change their afros, braids, dreadlocks and twists or denied employment opportunities if it does not align with dress code standards.

The Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, otherwise known as the CROWN Act, would provide statutory protection for individuals discriminated against for wearing protective hairstyles unique to Black culture.

Rep. Juanita Brent (D-Cleveland) has been trying to get the act off the house floor since 2020. In 2023, she reintroduced House Bill 178 for the third time, now with bipartisan support from republican Rep. Jamie Callender (R-Concord).

"This is my life story. My hair may be straight now, but most times my hair is in braids," Brent said. "And I just think it's crazy that there are people who are being removed from classrooms, who are not allowed to participate in sports events and are being removed from job opportunities because they're choosing to have their hair in braids and afros."

The legislation has already passed in cities such as Columbus, Akron, Cincinnati and Cleveland Heights.

"There are so many places where discrimination is occurring. So sometimes it takes a lot longer to do it in every city, and every community," she said. "Sometimes people don't realize the need for it until it happens to your neighbor, your grandchild, it happens to yourself."

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce has testified against H.B. 178, arguing that it "increases civil liability for employers, limits at-will employment in our state, and hampers the ability for businesses to set their own workplace policies."

Kevin Shimp, who testified on behalf of the Chamber, did not respond to interview requests.

The legislation is currently with the House Civil Justice Committee and has until December 2024 to pass.

"Controlling people's hair is almost like putting people in their place and saying you don't belong here," Brent said.

The history of what is considered an acceptable presentation of Black hair in the United States dates back to slavery when European aesthetics became the standard, said Mwatabu Okantah, department chair and professor of Africana Studies at Kent State University.

"On the one hand, many of our people have just ignored it and have lived according to our own aesthetic values, even within the context of being here in the United States," Okantah said. "Then, others of our people have internalized it and have struggled with extremely negative perceptions of ourselves, seeing ourselves the way white society sees us."

Black people's response to the European aesthetic has gone through cycles of assimilating to the social norm to embracing natural hairstyles in spite of it. Okantah said the cultural shift in recent years could be attributed to changing attitudes and Black people holding more positions of power.

"Enough of us now are scholars, mental health professionals, lawyers, and politicians. And so we have more tools to take that back. So I think the CROWN Act came out of that," he said.

The CROWN Act was introduced in California in 2019. It is now law in around two dozen states. The House of Representatives approved the CROWN Act in 2022, but the Senate did not.

Wendy Greene, a professor at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law and founder of #FreetheHair, has served as an advisor since the CROWN Act was conceived and has found the experience "rewarding".

"It's been really great to be able to see how this legislation is empowering young people to be advocates, young people to express their racial and cultural identities freely in their schools and their workplaces," Greene said. "And to see in turn, how people are using this legislation to educate and enrich others who may not really be familiar with this kind of discrimination because it's not their experience."

While the legislation will not end racial discrimination, the CROWN Act means employers could be found financially responsible for an individual's loss of job opportunity and emotional or psychological damage, Greene said.

"The major legal obligation is to just to stop engaging in the discrimination in and of itself," she said.

Faith Fistler wrote this article for Kent State News Lab. This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.

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