It is one of the main reasons Smith introduced legislation in the Maryland General Assembly that expands the state’s discrimination law to protect hair texture, Afro hairstyles, and protective hairstyles such as braids, twists and locs.
“To require people to pretty much alter chemically or in some type of extreme way how their hair grows out of the head seems to me so beyond intrusive,” said Smith (D-Baltimore City). “In the 21st century, it shouldn’t be necessary to make those kind of accommodations so someone can see you as a human or as a professional.”
Ever since a New Jersey high school wrestler was forced to cut his locs to participate in a match more than a year ago, the issue of hair discrimination has exploded into the national consciousness. A growing number of states and localities are taking steps to ban such discrimination — often led by young African American lawmakers like Smith, 38, who understand the shame and frustration the wrestler felt on a deeply personal level.
Last year, California introduced and later approved the first bill, called the Crown Act, to expand protections. Since then, New York, New Jersey, Colorado and Virginia have followed suit. The Virginia legislation, which Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed this month, was brought by two veteran African American legislators: Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake) and Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond). The bills passed the Senate unanimously and received bipartisan support in the House.
Twenty-five other states, including Massachusetts, Illinois and Connecticut, have also introduced hair discrimination bills, according to the Crown Coalition, which includes the civil rights groups Color of Change, the National Urban League and the Western Center on Law & Poverty, as well as the beauty brand Dove.
The Maryland House and Senate passed different versions of the bill in recent days, with the Senate adding a provision that some believed weakened the legislation; it allowed employers to take action on African American hairstyles if they thought an employee’s appearance was “unprofessional.”
On Monday, however, with the General Assembly planning to end the session early because of the coronavirus, the Senate approved the House version of the legislation. That set the stage for final approval of the bill, which would then go to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) for his signature.
The General Assembly is swiftly moving to approve other legislation as well, including a measure that would set guidelines to compensate the wrongly convicted for the time they spent in prison, legislation that would require public colleges and universities to create outbreak response plans, and a bill that would pay for a major redevelopment of racetrack facilities at Laurel Park and Pimlico, which hosts the Preakness Stakes.
All three advanced Monday.
The issue of hair discrimination is being weighed at the federal level, too; Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in December introduced a bill to ban discrimination based on hair textures and hairstyles that are commonly associated with a particular race or natural origin. One of the co-sponsors of the companion House bill is Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who wore Senegalese twists until she lost her hair to alopecia.
“We have a movement here,” said Adjoa B. Asamoah, a strategist with the coalition who has traveled across the country urging lawmakers to approve the anti-discrimination bill. “It’s truly been a dream to watch this grow.”
Filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry — who created “Hair Love,” a short animated film about a black man doing his daughter’s hair for the first time — used his Oscar acceptance speech to urge lawmakers across the country to pass versions of the Crown Act.
In the audience was DeAndre Arnold, a high school senior in Texas who was told earlier this year that he would have to cut his locs to participate in his graduation ceremony. Cherry invited the young man to be his guest at the Oscars and mentioned him during the speech. Arnold, he said, “represented all the messages we were trying to get across in the film, the power of being yourself.”
Maryland Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), lead sponsor of the Senate bill, said he introduced the legislation after learning about Chastity Jones, an Alabama woman who wore short locs to interview for a job with a customer service company. After she was hired, the human resources department asked her to cut her locs. She refused, and the offer was rescinded.
Jones sued in 2013 but lost in federal court, which essentially ruled that her hairstyle was not protected under discrimination laws.
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the lawsuit — a decision that has helped to fuel the movement to specifically ban hair-related discrimination.
“For centuries it’s been lawful to discriminate based on our hair texture,” said Wendy Greene, a law professor at Drexel University, who testified in support of the Maryland bill. “It takes a lot of time to dismantle these deeply embedded norms. It takes a long time to change the culture.”
Other Maryland elected officials also told stories to illustrate why they were pushing for a ban.
Montgomery County Council member Will Jawando (D) asked a Senate panel to imagine their 5-year-old child saying, “Why isn’t my hair straight like the pretty girls on TV?”
Jawando, who sponsored a hair-discrimination ban that passed in Montgomery County this year, said he had heard those words from his daughter.
At 5 years old, he said, she was already being influenced by a Eurocentric standard of beauty.
When Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford) suggested a scenario in which a worker has a “wild-looking appearance” and said an employer “may not want that. . . . You want people to look serious,” several members of the witness panel looked exasperated.
Jawando said he hoped the bill would not just lead to enforcement but would also provide an education about black hair and the cultural heritage connected to it.
“The hair that grows out of my head, this ’fro, every single curl, every single kink, it’s associated with my race,” said Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery), a co-sponsor of the bill.
Wilkins said that without an updated code, black people run the risk of being discriminated against in employment, housing and public accommodations based on how they choose to wear their hair.
Del. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s), who has been wearing locs since 2004, said it is “disheartening” when people are not allowed to be themselves.
He recalled being questioned numerous times by friends and mentors. They suggested that he cut his locs, he said, theorizing that some people might not like them or might feel uncomfortable because of them.
“I refused to adhere to other people’s perceptions and ignorance on what my locs mean to me,” Washington said. “It’s history behind my locs, my Nubian locs. . . . It’s a symbol of hope and prosperity.”
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.