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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

State Senator Holly Mitchell Talks About New Law To End Hair Discrimination

Speaker 1: 00:00 California is now the first state to ban discrimination against the natural hair texture of many black Americans. For years, braids, twists, locks and Afros were not welcome in workplaces, in schools, and often thought of as unprofessional. The new law called the Crown Act will go into effect next year, midday edition cohost Jade Heinemann spoke with state Senator Holly j Mitchell, who introduced the crown act. Senator Mitchell, welcome. Speaker 2: 00:27 Thank you so much for having me. Speaker 1: 00:28 So what inspired the Crown Act, and I should say that that crown is an acronym for create a respectful and open workplace for natural hair. So what inspired you to create this law? Speaker 2: 00:40 Well, you know, there are a number of things. First of all, I've worn my own hair natural. I, uh, have locked for about 15 years now. Was natural before that for about five years. Are there were a number of things. I was attending a policy conference convened by the National Black Caucus. The state legislators and a senior VP was, dove was there talking to legislators about this concept that they've had in the beauty industry about really trying to change this law. And they were encouraging us to consider introducing resolutions in our various state houses across the country. Literally just a few weeks after that experience, last December, I, along with many Americans, saw the horrible video of the young high school wrestler in New Jersey who the referee determined that his locks were not appropriate for wrestling, didn't fit. There are rules and regulations, and we all witnessed him having his hair viciously cut off right there on the mat in front of all of his teammates, et cetera. And that those two experiences came together. We thought about what we could do here in the state of California and, uh, decided that we would amend the fair employment and Housing Act and education code, um, to make sure that the definition of race is inclusive of traits historically associated with rights. That would include hair texture and what we're calling protective hairstyles, as you stated, locks, braids, and twist. That's how the Crown Aq was born. Speaker 1: 02:10 And this legislation has had a lot of support. Why do you think it struck such a deep personal chord with people? Speaker 2: 02:16 I think it's a deep personal issue with many people. Uh, I have been blown away by the numbers of letters and calls that I've received from parents, not only in California, but across the country whose daughters largely have either been reprimanded, sent home, or even suspended, um, because school officials deemed that their here was, uh, a distraction to others or unruly and the number of, um, California residents who've reached out through social media and direct contact with my office to tell us horror stories about, um, employers who, uh, either through kind of implicit or explicit bias suggested to them that their natural hair, uh, lacked professionalism. And so it's really spurred this conversation about what constitutes professionalism in the workplace and, and what standard by which are we measured. And this notion that, you know, a Eurocentric standard of straight hair should be perceived as the norm and as professional and through this bill and through our life experiences, we're challenging that. Speaker 1: 03:18 And this discrimination doesn't just affect the way someone's hair looks in the workplace or school. And for many people, this impacts their overall wellbeing. Can you talk to me about that? Speaker 2: 03:28 Yeah. There, there are are many, um, um, people who've talked about really the health, um, um, impacts of chemical Lee straightening your hair. Uh, my chief of staff for example, and many women have talked about, uh, when they were pregnant, how their doctors and cosmetologists have strongly suggested that they not use chemical relaxer to perm or straighten their hair. Um, because it basically, most of those relaxers contain lie. It is a chemical that alters the core structure of your hair and the texture of your hair. Um, and so there are health ramifications, but fundamentally the bill is about personal choice that I should not be penalized because I don't choose to straighten my hair as when I first ran for office in 2010. Uh, I was clear that, you know, the electorate would make their decision about voting for me based on what was inside my head, not how I choose to wear my hair. And I think that applies to workplaces across the board. Speaker 1: 04:31 And so have you had your own experiences with discrimination based on how you wear your hair? Speaker 2: 04:35 You know, I have to say that I'm fortunate and I say, I don't think I have. When I decided to lock 15 years ago, I was the CEO of an organization and I was conscious of the fact that I was making both a political and social statement by choosing to wear my hair natural and lock it. And I was, you know, um, very, um, mindful and that was an intentional act for me. I think when I decided to run for office, it then became a part of a broader strategic conversation around electability. And that's when I chose to challenge that notion. And again, um, um, have not experienced the fact that voters or people elect me, um, um, at least have not overtly expressed, um, their opinion about it. Again, I was elected that first time in 2010 and had been reelected every election since Speaker 1: 05:25 on the surface. You know, this law appears to just enable everyone to wear their hair in its natural state, but it's bigger than that. In what ways does this legislation redefine what racial discrimination is? Speaker 2: 05:38 Uh, I think, you know, uh, hair, um, particularly for the African American community has really been political. If you think about the symbol of, um, um, the black power movement in the 60s and big Afros, uh, and the natural hair is indeed a movement. Um, it's a trend that's been going on for a good number of years and you see more and more people with natural hair. You know, when the women's filed suit and unfortunately lost in the u s supreme court in the early eighties, women who were in the banking industry and the airline industry, um, you know, we didn't have kind of critical numbers. All you have to do is look at the new marketplace, the new marketplace for natural hair products to know that, you know, supply certainly meets demand. And so there is a growing movement in there. Um, you know, significant numbers every day of people choosing to lock, twist, or braid their hair. And so this will, uh, inevitably be a culture shift. You know, for me, it is a reflection of my sense of pride and clarity and confidence in who I am as a black woman. That's what I think made that video of the young wrestlers so deeply offensive. Um, because no one cared to ask him why he locked his hair and what that represented to him. They simply cut his hair. Speaker 1: 06:58 And now that the Crown Act is state law here in California, do you have a sense of if this legislation will be created in other states or even on a federal level? Speaker 2: 07:06 Uh, we've already heard from, uh, colleagues led set of colleagues in New York, in New Jersey. I understood today that there is a interest in Congress to introduce a similar piece of legislation. My colleagues and other state houses have called us to actually ask that we share our language with them. And so we believe this is just the beginning of the end to, uh, um, hare discrimination, a another kind of chink in the armor, uh, ending racial racial discrimination in this country. And I'm just proud to be a part of that movement. Speaker 1: 07:42 That was California state Senator Holly j Mitchell speaking to midday edition cohost jade hangman. Speaker 3: 07:55 Okay.

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California ends race-based hair discrimination with the CROWN Act which stands for, "Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair."
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