Natural Hair is Good Hair: The CROWN Act and Ending Hair Discrimination in the Workplace
By Whitney McLaughlin
Natural Hair Discrimination in the Workplace
Natural hair discrimination has been considered a form of race-based discrimination in the United States that still continues 57 years after the Civil Rights Act was enacted. Bias against natural hair has led to various lawsuits filed by Black workers alleging discrimination against their tresses in the workplace for more than forty years. The results of these employment discrimination cases have yielded mixed results. The most recent case involved a rescinded job offer after the candidate refused to cut her dreadlocks. The court ruled in favor of the employer (LexisNexis, 2021) and the Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Most recently, bias against natural hair has garnered attention on a global scale with FINA, the international swimming federation, banning use of the Soul Cap, a swimming cap designed to accommodate natural Afro-textured hair, in the Tokyo Olympics (FINA, 2021). The reasoning given for the prohibition was that the caps do not “fit the natural form of the head” (FINA, 2021). The ban creates a significant barrier for athletes participating in aquatic sports with long, thick, coily, and voluminous natural hair. Additionally, the ban also disregards the use of protective styles to shield natural hair. Although FINA is currently reviewing (at the time of this writing) its decision amid global backlash, the ban sends a clear message of exclusion and lack of awareness and education on various hair textures and hairstyles of Black and Brown communities. Unfortunately, this type of bias is all too common in the work environment and can significantly impede the career development of people of color in the U.S.
Natural Hair, Black Women, and Stereotype Threat
Natural hair bias has disproportionately affected African American women as their career opportunities and advancement may become jeopardized if they do not behave in a stereotype-congruent manner (Opie & Phillips, 2015). This leads to concerns about maintaining a professional image that adheres to Eurocentric standards while suppressing characteristics tied to one’s marginalized identity traits (e.g., traits connected to race and gender) in an effort to reduce stereotype threat (Thomas, 1993; Roberts, 2005). This is because natural hairstyles make race salient and highlight the historical negative stereotypes and internalized oppression about Black hair. In a study on perceptions of natural hair with employment candidates, Opie and Phillips (2015) found that Afrocentric hairstyles received much lower ratings in professionalism and higher ratings related to dominance perceptions compared to Eurocentric hairstyles. Both Black and White participants mentioned Afrocentric hair in a negative way compared to Eurocentric hairstyles.
Natural hair bias persists even after Black women have successfully maneuvered the hiring process. A recent study found that 80% of African American women surveyed felt they needed to change their hairstyle to a more conservative look to fit into the work environment (JOY Collective, 2019). Thus, natural hairstyles in the workplace may lead to stereotype threat for Black women and they may perceive that they have fewer career options, should not pursue leadership roles, and may disengage from their career aspirations altogether (Casad & Bryant, 2016; Powell, 2019).
The CROWN Act and Ending Hair Discrimination
Anti-hair discrimination efforts galvanized in 2019 with the passing of the CROWN Act. The CROWN Act stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair and signifies a cultural and political movement to celebrate natural hair and empower people of color, particularly African American women, to be their authentic selves in any setting. The law was enacted “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” (CROWN Coalition, 2021, para. 1). Currently, the CROWN Act is law in 13 states and 30 municipalities across the U.S. To raise awareness, the CROWN Coalition, founded by Dove, National Urban League, Color of Change, and Western Center on Law and Poverty have declared July 3rd as National CROWN Day (also known as Black Hair Independence Day) since 2019 and held the inaugural CROWN Awards in July 2021. Additionally, the organization has developed a petition to make the CROWN Act federal law which has garnered over 300,000 signatures.
The Career Practitioner’s Role
In the National Career Development Association’s Code of Ethics (2015), career practitioners are charged with “supporting the worth, dignity, potential, and uniqueness of everyone…honoring diversity and promoting social justice” (p. 1). Thus, career practitioners must continue to pursue social justice in the workplace to help individuals be their authentic selves at work. Natural hair should never be a burden and it certainly should not be a deterrent for career advancement. To help, career practitioners may need to:
- Increase knowledge and awareness of the CROWN Coalition and the CROWN Act and determine if the law was passed in their state or municipality.
- Sign the CROWN Act petition.
- Promote National CROWN Day (July 3rd) and participate in community events.
- Help clients with natural hair identify options to pursue if they feel that they are experiencing bias or discrimination in the workplace due to their hair texture or style.
To foster a sense of belonging for all employees, there must be an emphasis on professional standards that embrace difference and uniqueness. Career practitioners can play a pivotal role in helping to improve professionalism standards that support and protect natural hair.
Casad, B. J., & Bryant, W. J. (2016). Addressing stereotype threat is critical to diversity and inclusion in organizational psychology. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00008
CROWN Coalition. (2021). Creating a respectful and open world for natural hair. https://www.thecrownact.com/
FINA. (2021). FINA media statement. https://www.fina.org/news/2183443/fina-media-statement
JOY Collective. (2019). The CROWN research study. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5edc69fd622c36173f56651f/t/5edeaaa09a3c4b1e68d153af/1591650978262/DOVE_2019HAIR_reseach.pdf
LexisNexis. (2021). EEOC v. Catastrophe Mgmt. Sols. - 852 F.3d 1018 (11th Cir. 2016). https://www.lexisnexis.com/community/casebrief/p/casebrief-eeoc-v-catastrophe-mgmt-sols
National Career Development Association. (2015). Code of ethics. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/asset_manager/get_file/3395?ver=738700
Opie, T. R., & Phillips, K. W. (2015). Hair penalties: the negative influence of Afrocentric hair on ratings of Black women's dominance and professionalism. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1311. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01311
Powell, C. (2019). Bias, employment discrimination, and Black women’s hair: Another way forward. BYU Law Review, 4(7), 933-968.
Roberts, L. (2005). Changing faces: professional image construction in diverse organizational settings. The Academy of Management Review, 30(4), 685–711. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMR.2005.18378873
Thomas, D. (1993). Racial dynamics in cross-race developmental relationships. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38(2), 169–194. https://doi.org/10.2307/2393410
Whitney McLaughlin, PhD, LCMHC is a Board-Certified Counselor in North Carolina. She is an Assistant Professor in the Counselor Education program at St. Bonaventure University. She earned her doctorate from North Carolina State University in 2020. In addition to her clinical experience, she has provided career counseling services to undergraduate students for over a decade. She is the lead instructor for the career counseling course at SBU and has provided various career development workshops with a variety of clients across the lifespan. Her research interests include innovation in counselor education, multicultural counseling, wellness and coping processes, and professional competency. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and learn more at https://whitneymclaughlin.weebly.com.