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Black women, men praise Md. bill on hairstyle bias, cite personal accounts

Sen. William "Will" Smith, chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. (The Daily Record/File photo)

Sen. William “Will” Smith Jr., chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. (The Daily Record/File photo)

ANNAPOLIS – Legislation to ban racial discrimination based on hairstyle drew strong support Tuesday from black women and men – including the bill’s Senate sponsor — who recounted having endured or having seen family members experience the trauma of having to straighten their naturally curly locks to be accepted in the workplace or in society generally.

“I never had a full appreciation of my mother for what she was doing to conform,” said Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “African Americans spend thousands of dollars to conform to Eurocentric norms.”

Smith, whose mother was a program analyst at the General Services Administration, spoke in support of his bill to broaden the Maryland civil rights law’s definition of “race” to include “traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, afro hairstyles, and protective hairstyles.” Senate Bill 531 would define a “protective hairstyle” as one “designed to protect the ends of the hair by decreasing tangling, shedding, and breakage, including braids, twists, and locks.”

The legislation is intended to protect “hairstyle associated with traditions or cultural heritage that have not always been respected or understood,” said Smith, D-Montgomery.

Civil rights attorneys have long challenged corporate hairstyle policies — such as a requirement that hair be kept short and unbraided — as having a “disparate impact” on racial minorities. Such arguments of unintended or tacit racial bias have had mixed success in the courts in the absence of an express, statutory link between race and hairstyle, according to court records.

The same courtroom results have held true with regard to claims of housing and public accommodations bias, where courts have often held that while racial minorities are a protected class, hairstyle is not.

The legislation would make clear that hairstyle is inseparable from race, Smith said.

And, it is hoped, the legal change would end the reasonable belief by many African Americans that they must alter their natural hair – often with harsh chemicals and straightening irons – to succeed in Maryland, said Orlena Nwokah Blanchard, a marketing company president who added that she only recently allowed her naturally curly hair to grow out.

“I straightened my hair believing that is what the professional world needed to see,” Blanchard, who heads the Washington-based Joy Collective, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“I … have taken a long time” before letting my hair flow naturally, she added.

S.B. 531 is part of a national movement to end racial discrimination based on hairstyle. California, New Jersey and New York have recently enacted “CROWN” laws, the acronym standing for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair.

Montgomery County passed a CROWN ordinance last year. The law went into effect Feb. 6.

Montgomery County Councilman Will Jawando, a lead sponsor of the ordinance, told the Senate committee that the issue of hairstyle discrimination and the traumatic effect it can have on black girls and women hit home in the past few years.

First, his then-5-year-old daughter asked him, “Why isn’t my hair straight like the pretty girls on TV?” Jawando said.

Later, when he told his wife of his plan to run for county council, her first reaction was, “I guess I have to straighten my hair,” Jawando said.

He added that a law alone might not be enough to relieve the years of discrimination blacks have endured because of Eurocentric beliefs about appropriate hairstyles.

“We also need to say with a strong voice … how you are naturally made is good enough,” Jawando said.

The issue of hairstyle bias came to the fore in December 2018, when a referee in New Jersey told a black high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the match.

Last year, a high school student in Mont Belvieu, Texas, was told his dreadlocks violated the school’s dress code. In response, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus said this month that it plans to introduce legislation to ban discrimination based on hairstyle.

Del. Stephanie Smith, D-Baltimore city, is the chief sponsor of the bill in the House of Delegates. The House Health and Government Operations Committee has scheduled a March 6 hearing on House Bill 1444.

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