By the time she was 3 years old, after watching the Disney movie “Frozen,” Payton yearned for “princess hair” — long flowing locks that blew in the wind.
Julie only saw her daughter’s naturally curly hair as beautiful. She would have none of this “straightening.” Instead, she researched “mixed girls’ hair” and discovered products that would work with her daughter’s hair, preparing her for a world where she could be proud of her hair as it was.
But beyond the potential social challenges, Julie may not have been aware that her daughter could be discriminated against in school and when she seeks employment because of her hair.
Hairstyle discrimination is legal.
Enter the Crown Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” It is designed to provide protection from discrimination for people who choose to wear hair that is “tightly coiled or tightly curled, locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, and Afros.” On March 21, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to make it hairstyle to discriminate because of. Next, the bill will go to the Senate, where measures to pass a similar act have previously failed.
If approved by the Senate, the measure would ban race-based hair discrimination in employment and against those participating in federally assisted programmes, housing programs and public accommodations. But Republicans generally oppose the idea of such protections. Only 14 of 209 Republicans voted to approve the act in the House. At the state level, 16 states have either passed a similar law or are considering it. Only two of the 16 states have a higher representation of registered Republicans than Democrats.
To those unaware, or not impacted by this reality, the bill may seem trivial, or concocted by the “Woke” culture. It is not.
Just one example is the case of Chastity Jones. In 2010 she was fired from her job because she wore her hair in a short, dreadlocks style. She sued her former employer, lost and appealed to the Supreme Court, where she lost again. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling, arguing that a hairstyle is not inevitable and immutable just because it is a reasonable result of hair texture.
That we must legislate once again to ban discrimination may seem unnecessary to some. But America has a long history of doing so. We have had to legislate the right for women to vote, for Blacks to freely use public transportation, and for Asians to immigrate, for example. This most recent bill addresses something much more basic, much more intrinsically human — the right of Americans to enjoy, without bias, prejudice, or discrimination, their right to display their hair in a manner of their choosing.
But here’s the rub. Even if the act passes, it will not address the underlying issue, which is a bias toward Eurocentric hairstyles. Bias is a natural human trait and cannot be legislated away. It must be identified, labeled and mitigated. Unless we take additional steps to address this bias, those who seek to discriminate will just work around the legislation and find another way to do so. And then another and another.
Discrimination whack-a-mole. America, in particular corporate America, needs to demonstrate that it does value diversity in the workplace. Here’s what I have learned as a former chief diversity and inclusion officer and special adviser that produces results:
— Walk the talk. You would be hard pressed to find a company mission statement that does not claim to put employees first, that values inclusivity and diversity, or says that employees are our most important asset. Make sure your policies back it up. Don’t wait for federal or state legislation to outlaw discrimination in your organization. Make the change by publishing HR policies explicitly stating that hairstyle is not a factor in hiring or promotion.
— The most impactful way to demonstrate support for authenticity is to demonstrate your own. Whether you are a supervisor or not, you can model behavior for others. Be it your authentic hairstyle or other traits that define you, bring your authentic self to work.
— encourage your employees to see people who are different. Not in a “sideshow” way, but one that leverages business as usual. Give a visibly diverse person (based on gender, ethnicity, hairstyle, or a person with a handicap) a platform without making any reference to what makes them diverse. For example, a person with dreadlocks facilitating a companywide town hall.
— Review job selection criteria and job selection results for trends. A hiring manager may be camouflaging their biases by using criteria that is not critical to the job.
— Practice conscious inclusion. Being an inclusive leader doesn’t just happen, it requires a conscious shift in behavior. Challenge your leadership team to demonstrate a shift to inclusive leadership.
My hope is that someday, Payton, and millions of people who look like her, will not just be accepted for their authenticity, but admired for it — and seen as the princess she is.
Lee Jourdan retired as Chevron’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. He now serves as an independent director with PROS Holdings, and a special adviser to FTI Consulting.