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U.S. Sees Growing Effort To End Discriminatory Hair Grooming Policies

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In many states, it is legal for employers to discriminate against a Black person's hairstyle. Some employers view certain hairstyles as unprofessional, and many Black women say they feel pressure to change their hair from its natural state. There's now a growing effort to end such discriminatory grooming policies, as Bobbi-Jeanne Misick of member station WWNO reports.

BOBBI-JEANNE MISICK, BYLINE: New Orleans attorney Nia Weeks loves her shoulder-length twisted locks, but she carries a painful memory from childhood as the only Black student in her class.

NIA WEEKS: Water being poured on my hair by my white classmates because they wanted to see what it looked like kinked up.

MISICK: She's not alone. Residents Amber Ward, Lester Pierce and Khelsie Rhodes say they've experienced all sorts of aggressions about their hair.

AMBER WARD: In corporate America, I would be questioned about the hairstyle I had or requested to wear my hair a certain way.

LESTER PIERCE: Two jobs tried to make me cover my locks, but I just didn't take the jobs.

KHELSIE RHODES: A client came in with really beautiful locks. And my supervisor, who was a white man, said, you know how they get their hair like that, right? They just don't brush or wash it. It's disgusting.

MISICK: Stories like that drove Weeks to push the city of New Orleans to pass the CROWN Act last December. Crown stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. Weeks said hair discrimination is unifying for Black women.

WEEKS: It's an education issue. It's an economic issue. It's a housing issue.

MISICK: The local ordinance prohibits discrimination against people with hair textures and styles associated with a particular race - so not just afros but dreadlocks, cornrows, braids, twists and other styles originating in Africa centuries ago. Under current federal law, Afros are considered an attribute of Blackness and are protected, but these other styles are not.

WENDY GREENE: This - what I call a hair-splitting legal distinction between Afros being considered characteristic of Blackness and locks not being the case.

MISICK: That's Drexel University law professor Wendy Greene. She founded the Free the Hair Movement and co-drafted versions of these bills. California was the first to pass the legislation, and Delaware became the ninth to add the protection last month. More than 20 others are considering bills. Green says a change in federal law would be best. A bill in Congress would add protections against hair discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodation and federal assistance programs.

GREENE: One of the great things is that, you know, legislation - really making people aware of the systematic nature of this discrimination. And it may not be able to fully redress the issue and to eliminate it, but it definitely helps to possibly prevent it and reduce it.

MISICK: Nia Weeks, the New Orleans attorney, hopes the CROWN Act is adopted nationwide. She and D’wana Makeba, a master loctician, spoke about this duality that Black women straddle - experiencing discrimination for their natural hairstyles that are a great source of pride.

WEEKS: So much in our household revolves around our hair. And it's love, and it's connectivity.

D’WANA MAKEBA: Locking my hair was unlocking my mind. It brought me on a journey about a knowledge of self.

MISICK: They say federal protections could mean holding on to that Black joy and letting go of some of the worry over perception. For NPR News, I'm Bobbi-Jeanne Misick in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.