New Orleans considers ban on natural hair discrimination

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Nia Weeks still remembers the day her classmates refused to believe that her meticulously pressed hair was “hers.”

In the 1980s, Weeks spent seven years in grammar school at The Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans. Typically the only Black student in her class, Weeks’ mother frequently straightened her naturally curly locks. She felt the pressure to conform to White hairstyles.

“I remember my White classmates insisted that Black hair was curly,” said the 42-year-old. “I was at recess, and I had water dumped on my head.”

Thousands of Black women in New Orleans and around Louisiana have similar stories, Weeks said Tuesday after she appeared before a City Council committee and requested that members approve a local version of what’s know as the CROWN Act, a measure banning discrimination against hair styles commonly worn by members of a particular race.

The ordinance, approved unanimously in the Community Development Committee, was modeled on the federal legislation, fully labeled as the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act. The bill passed the U.S. House in September.

If approved by the full council, New Orleans would become one of only a few cities in the country to adopt a local version of the measure, which has yet to be voted on by the U.S. Senate. Seven U.S. states have adopted the law.

Though hair styling might seem like a purely cosmetic concern, the history of hair straightening by Black women and men through chemical processing and extreme heat styling has its roots in the discriminatory practices of slavery itself, Weeks and Drexel University law professor Wendy Greene told council members Tuesday.

“Woolly,” curly or kinky textures were declared by jurists early in American history as a marker of blackness, while straight hair was seen as a marker of whiteness, said Greene, a legal expert who supports the federal CROWN Act.

“Therefore, a person could be consigned to enslavement solely on the basis of woolly hair texture, while the straightness of one’s hair could legally render a person free,” she said.

Black hair was regulated in Louisiana by Governor Esteban Miro in 1786, who ordered women of African descent to cover or wrap their hair with cloth “tignons” to signify their status as enslaved people, Greene added.

Even today, Black women, men and children face discrimination for either wearing their natural hair in long Afros, using wigs or extensions, wearing braids, dreadlocks, Bantu twists or other cultural styles. Sixth grader Faith Fennidy was told in 2018 to remove her braided hair extensions on her first day of school at Christ the King Elementary in Terrytown or leave, as was fellow sixth grader Tyrelle Davis.

The incident generated a national backlash, and the families of Davis and Fennidy ended up suing the school and the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Christ the King later rescinded its ban on “styles which draw undue attention to the student and cause distractions.”

Meanwhile, Jade Payadue, a former University of Holy Cross nursing student, told WDSU in 2018 that she felt forced to leave the program after administrators said her natural hair was “too big” and against school policy.

The argument, lodged by some employers and institutions, that cultural styles are distracting or unprofessional was not lodged Tuesday. That’s a point that leaves Black women and girls in “a very precarious catch 22,” Greene said: either wear natural hair at the risk of being deprived of employment or educational opportunities, or don straight hair at the risk of masking one’s natural physical appearance for the sake of a racist set of established beauty norms.

City Councilmember Helena Moreno, who introduced the ordinance, said some Black women who straighten their hair have felt so pressured to appear “professional” in work or other settings that they refuse to go to the gym if it means sweating out their hair style.

“We must acknowledge that what society has deemed a ‘professional’ excludes black individuals from professional and social environments. And this of course, we must work to change,” Moreno said.

Councilmembers Cyndi Nguyen, Jay Banks and Kristin Gisleson Palmer also endorsed the policy Tuesday, calling it a step toward rectifying some of the ills Black people are faced with.

“Black women go through a life struggle like none other… the economic disparity, the sexism disparity, the whole idea of having to survive in a world where the cards are stacked against you is something that Black women have to deal with every day,” Banks said.

Per the policy, the city’s Human Rights Commission would be tasked with reviewing discrimination complaints related to hairstyles associated with any race or national origin. That body then would recommend orders based on its findings that would be enforced by Orleans Civil District Court.

Weeks, the founder and executive director of Citizen SHE United, said the process would offer some recourse for scores of Black women and girls who have been made to feel like outcasts when wearing their hair naturally.

It remains a personal issue for her, too. Three decades after classmates poured water on her head, Weeks now watches her daughter insist on curling her own dreadlocked hair at night, so as to better mimic the curly styles worn by her White peers.

Put simply, Weeks said, the ordinance “is an acknowledgement of who we are.”

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