By: Stesha A. Emmanuel & Cherina D. Wright
Curls. ‘Fro. Straight. Braided. Wavy. Natural. Relaxed. Colored. There reaches a point where every woman, in particular women of color, are faced with the age-old question – how should I style my hair to conform to the image of a [fill in the blank]. In this case, it is the legal community. I’ve especially asked this question when applying to law firms. Despite the progress made and glass ceilings shattered by the likes of First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, Supreme Court Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson and U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley, women are judged by their appearances and hair. Years later, my mentees ask the same question – how should I style my hair? This sentiment permeates in both the workplace and the education system. Let us not forget the six-hour detention and suspension from sports imposed on two black teenage girls for wearing braids while attending Mystic Valley Regional Charter School. The policy that unfairly discriminated against and regulated hair was within the school’s policy. The school was in Massachusetts. The issue of hair is not exclusive to women and many men face similar problems.
In her song “I am Not My Hair,” India Arie describes the everyday battle Black and Brown women go through when being judged and questioned for their hair choices. The song says, “I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am not your expectations, no.” Yet I remember a time when Black and Brown women were expected to look a certain way, wear our hair a certain way. An expectation that not only came from educational spaces and workplaces but for many of us there were family members, friends, and professional mentors telling us exactly how we had to wear our hair to fit in, to be successful, and get where we wanted to be professionally. We often found ourselves living up to societal norms and expectations in order to eliminate any additional hurdles as we worked to climb the professional ladder. Creating an affinity bias, not realizing that even with our hair bone straight or slicked in a bun, there was and is still room for us to be seen as inferior. The Crown Act is liberating in many ways, acknowledging that Black and Brown people do not have to fit any one person’s expectations, including our own ill, preconceived notions.
The Crown Act is an important act to help curtail and prevent discrimination on the bases of immutable characteristics. While unspoken, many Black and Brown women are told to wear their hair slick back in a bun to avoid being distracting. And while many think about discrimination with respect to race, gender and sexual orientation, the stereotypes associated with one’s aesthetics is also at play. The Crown Act stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. In order to do this we must eliminate our expectations for everyone to look the same. We have to appreciate that ‘fro or natural, curly or relaxed, people are more than just their hair. In the legal community, it means we should refrain from telling law students and young attorneys how to “tame their hair” or “be more conservative in their hairstyle.” During the interview and hiring process, it is imperative that sensitivity and cultural awareness training are provided to interviewers. This ultimately means recognizing that one’s aesthetics shouldn’t be a part of the hiring requirements, especially one’s hair. We need to have real conversations about biases and how one is judged before they even open their mouth.
For Black and Brown people who were taught to wear your hair a certain way, this goes beyond a law or legal policy. Creating a respectful and open work for natural hair, your hair means finding the power to never let anyone tell you how to wear your Crown. It means wearing your Crown however you feel comfortable, being your authentic self in all spaces you occupy. I tell my mentees a different answer than what I was told as a law student – wear your hair in the style you choose, not one that is chosen for you. You are enough. Your words and intelligence are enough. Be your authentic self. The act of this is revolutionary. The Crown Act provides the support of this revolution.