Growing up on Chicago’s West Side, it was always made clear to Avalon Betts-Gaston how she should wear her hair.
Straight hair was good hair; her natural coils and curls were bad hair, Betts-Gaston said. Even once she gave herself “permission” to see her hair as beautiful, Betts-Gaston said that, as a lawyer, she still faced restrictions on “what was acceptable.”
“In my own safe space, I was able to embrace who I was, but when I walked out the door, I knew I had to put on another person,” said Betts-Gaston, 53. me even though I was ready to embrace myself.”
Last week, Illinois legislators passed without opposition a measure that would ban discrimination based on hair textures and styles in the workplace.
The Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair — or CROWN — Act amends the Illinois Human Rights Act to make explicit that “race” includes associated traits such as hair texture and styles. The bill now awaits Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature.
“No one should have to miss out on a job opportunity naturally or miss a school graduation because of the hair that grows out of their head,” state Sen. Mattie Hunter, a Chicago Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. “It’s 2022. As a nation, we should be past this petty discrimination.
“If it is wrong to judge by the color of one’s skin, isn’t it also wrong to judge by the way one styles their hair?” Hunter said.
In a recent survey of more than 2,000 women, about half of them Black, conducted for Unilever’s Dove personal care line, Black women were more than 80% more likely to agree with the statement, “I have to change my hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.”
The study also found that Black women with natural hairstyles are perceived as less competent and thus are less likely to be recommended for an interview compared to Black women with straight hair or white women with straight or curly hair.
In partnership with Dove, the CROWN Coalition started its campaign to fight hair discrimination in 2019, with California being the first state to codify the ban in law later that year. More than a dozen states have since followed suit, and the issue is being considered at the federal level, with the US House of Representatives passing the act last month.
Last year, Illinois passed the Jett Hawkins Act, which bars schools from prohibiting hairstyles such as dreadlocks and braids. The law is named after a 4-year-old boy who was told his braids were against the dress code at Providence St. Mel in Garfield Park, the private school he attended.
Pritzker’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the CROWN Act, but when he signed into law the Jett Hawkins Act last year, the Governor said in a statement that “nobody should be made to feel ‘less than’ for how they express themselves.”
For decades, Betts-Gaston straddled the two worlds many people of color faced, “forced to be someone that’s not 100% yourself in order to be successful in a career, job or,” but free to express herself privately through her hair.
But working for the advocacy group Illinois Alliance for Reentry and Justice, Betts-Gaston said she’s finally able to wear her hair in a natural style.
Not all workplaces will become tolerant of natural hair immediately, Betts-Gaston said, but when this bill becomes law, it will “empower women of color to say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that to me.’ ”
“That change is going to be immediate,” Betts-Gaston said. “Slowly but surely, as a pushback occurs, then the workplace will begin to change.”