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Elizabeth Wellington: New Jersey has a potential new law that would protect black people's hair. Sadly, we need it.

By Elizabeth Wellington, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Fashion Daily News

I consider myself pretty lucky.

As I transitioned from a precision Halle Berry-esque pixie to locks in the early 2000s, my bosses didn't pull me aside to suggest I choose a more "professional" look.

But they very well could have. It was perfectly legal for employers - back then, I was a young reporter at a newspaper in North Carolina - to forbid twists, locks or braids in the workplace because they weren't quite right for the office: too ethnic, too militant, too black.

When I think about the woman I might be today if my company had frowned upon my baby coils, my stomach drops. My decision to stop straightening my hair was the first step on my personal path to self-love and free expression. It would have been impossible for me to be my wholly authentic self if I didn't have the freedom to wear my hair in its natural state. How it grows out of my head. How God made it.

This is why the CROWN Act, a bill introduced in the New Jersey Legislature last month that would ban discrimination based on hair in the workplace and in schools, is such an important piece of legislation for black people - men and women. On Wednesday Governor Gavin Newsom signed the CROWN Act - Senate Bill 188 - into California Law. And New York legislators unanimously passed the CROWN Act last week, where it is awaiting signature from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

CROWN - an acronym for Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for natural hair - is the brainchild of the CROWN Coalition. With Dove at the helm, the coalition is composed of the National Urban League, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and the Color of Change. The coalition's ultimate goal is to create federal legislation that protects black people from hair discrimination.

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When companies decide that locks, braids, twists, or cornrows are unprofessional, they are telling black people that short Afros are the only natural hairstyle allowed in the office. Straightening black hair's natural tight curls by blow-drying it or using harsh chemicals like a lye relaxer become the only style options. There are wigs and weaves, but why bother with either if you have a full head of your own strong, healthy hair? Not to mention the number of men I know who grew out full heads of luscious locks but cut them the moment they started looking for new jobs.

The CROWN Coalition's work, says Esi Eggleston Bracey, the COO and EVP of Unilever Beauty, Dove's parent company, was inspired by a 2016 federal court decision that ruled employers were well within their rights to fire staffers because they wear their hair twisted in long locks. The coalition's mission was further fueled in December after a referee in Atlantic County gave Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson a heartbreaking option: cut his hair or forfeit the match.

Bracey said it would take a legislator in both Pennsylvania and Delaware to introduce the bill.

"Beauty is identity and identity is at the core of happiness, success, and well-being in life," said Bracey, an African American woman who let go of her relaxed asymmetrical bob in 1995. She now wears a textured wash-and-go. "It's all about your confidence and feeling good about who you are in this world, and having the confidence to do you in the world unlocks that possibility."

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(c) 2019, The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

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