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.
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.”
Bracey went through a natural hair journey not different from mine. When she cut her relaxed hair, she felt free. She found time she didn’t know she had. A renewed bandwidth. Her work, she said, even got better because she wasn’t investing so much energy in her hair.
The reality is that black people — especially black women in corporate America — have never really had the freedom to express such confidence.
This year, Dove surveyed 1,000 U.S. black women and 1,000 U.S. white women ages 25 to 64. The survey found that 80% of black women who responded agreed with this statement: “I have to change my hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.” The company didn’t indicate how many white women responded in the same way, but I bet you the percentage is nowhere near that high.
Our views on race and beauty breed two realities: Some white people just didn’t realize there were many black people whose hair does not grow out straight. And black people kept the way we groomed our hair a secret — the hours we spent in the salon to straighten it, the fear of water when it was just done. We never treated our own hair like it was good enough. “There is this perception of what is professional, and our natural hair is viewed as less professional,” Eggleston said. “It’s not just in our heads.”
It’s one thing if you are a company like Gillette or Nike that have taken stands on social justice issues like toxic masculinity and Black Lives Matter. Both of those companies have managed to appeal to new audiences that will undoubtedly raise sales. At the same time, these progressive messages sneak into our subconscious and help change accepted beliefs, like “boys will be boys.”
There are other companies, like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, that are certified B Corps. That means they balance profit with purpose. For many B Corps, advocacy is a part of their business strategy, said Hannah Munger, head of public relations for the B Lab, a Berwyn nonprofit that certifies B Corps.
Dove is blending the two concepts in its own unique way.
Fifteen years ago, said Americus Reed II, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Dove was basically one of the pioneers in socially minded advertising with its “Real Beauty” campaign that featured women of all body sizes and races selling its products. In taking this to the Legislature, Reed said, Dove is expanding its marketing in a way that is consistent with its ideals.
“This will go a long way to change the discriminatory practices that affect what this country’s beauty standards are,” Reed said. “Dove is playing the long game here. They are taking a stand to continue their narrative with continued clarity of their values. They are counteracting and correcting because it is the right thing to do. Dove is investing in the social goodwill of the black community and hoping it will pay off.”
Making it illegal to discriminate against natural hair styles will allow professional women who want to wear their naturally to be able to, and by extension will make those styles professional. Bracey had to be at the table, in her full authentic self, to effect this change.
It’s a shame that we have to plead with legislators in 2019 to get laws on the books letting us be who we are. But Dove’s work lobbying for the CROWN Act celebrates black hair not because it is beautiful, but because it just is.
© 2019, The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC.
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