As a black girl, every summer was marked by wearing braids — individuals, cornrows, up-dos, twist outs. This allowed for being able to swim without having to deal with my hair and eliminated going to the hair salon as often. Braids also gave me the ability to participate in water balloon fights without “messing up” my hair. With braids at summer camp, I worried less about all it takes to wash and tame my mane.
When I was eighteen and had graduated from high school I received a job through the Holman Community Development Corporation’s Jobs for Kids program. My job placement was at Holman United Methodist Church in an administrative position. Since I was placed among adults of which I was familiar, I got braids! This particular summer I was also preparing to go to college. A call came regarding a scholarship interview. My mother looked at me and said, “you are going to take those braids out, right?” Frustrated at the thought of having to deal with my hair at a moment’s notice, I understood what she meant. I needed to look presentable. It was important to present a certain image. I was expected to look professional. Braids were not considered professional. This meant that I needed to have straight hair — washed, blow dried, pressed, and curled.
This conversation. These thoughts. These expectations and the need to escape judgement is one that is a reality for black people in America.
There is a standard in American society. That standard is straight hair. Definitely whenever I start a new job, my hair is straightened. I don’t remember anyone having to tell me to do this. It is just known that I will be judged on my hairstyle.
What would they think? Maybe: “Oh she is that type of black girl.” “She has a black hairstyle.” “It’s too ghetto.” What I know for sure is that I’m the same person no matter what hairstyle I have — same work ethic, intellect, commitment, and creative spirit.
While I don’t like doing my hair or going to the salon (I have little patience when it comes to this kind of thing), I love the versatility of my hair. I can braid it, twist it, wash ‘n go, and straighten it. I love to watch it kink and curl up when wet and am always amazed with how straight it becomes once heat is applied.
I have always been natural; meaning I have never had a perm or straightener thanks to the women in my family who are hair experts and helped my mother take care of my tresses.
Last week, Governor Newsom passed the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair). It is the first law passed in the nation to end discrimination based on hairstyle.
In the 2018 California African African Policy Priorities Survey, 86% of respondents considered “eliminating racial profiling” to be a high policy priority for elected officials to address. In addition, 88% of respondents considered “fighting discrimination and institutional racism” a high policy priority.
The new law takes effect January 1st. We know how these things go; once enacted it can take years to see actual results. Aside from that reality, the work has been done to change a system that discriminates against individuals based on their hair. People put in the work and advocacy to pave the way for a more peaceful future in the workplace. For that, I am thankful. My crown is thankful.
Zaneta Smith coordinates operations of an African American civic engagement and public opinion research organization, the California Policy & Research Initiative. www.calpri.org