California on Wednesday became the first US state to ban racial discrimination based on hairstyle, passing a law to ensure afros and dreadlocks can be worn at all schools and offices.
The law is primarily aimed at protecting the rights of black Americans who favour the distinctive cuts, and was passed unanimously by both state chambers. It is due to enter into force on January 1.
“I’m not going to say we shouldn’t have a law that allows us to wear our hair the way it naturally is, but it’s also sad that in 2019, we have to have one in the first place,” said Tiffany Dena Loftin, youth and college director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The law was introduced by Los Angeles Democrat Senator Holly Mitchell, who is herself black and frequently wears microbraids.
“This law protects the right of Black Californians to choose to wear their hair in its natural form, without pressure to conform to Eurocentric norms,” the state senator said.
“For us, it is a symbol of who we are,” she added, describing her own decision to adopt the hairstyle as part of a “social and political statement to the outside world.”
“We shouldn’t have to sacrifice our hair, or our health, to conform to non-natural hair, because standards have been changing,” says Ama Karikari-Yawson, founder of MilesTales, a consultancy that works on diversity training in schools and business settings.
California Governor Gavin Newsom, who signed the bill, spoke of a high school student who was forced last December to cut off his dreadlocks before a wrestling match or forfeit the bout.
The student was made to choose whether to “lose an athletic competition or lose his identity,” said Newsom.
“That is played out in workplaces, it’s played out in schools — not just in athletic competitions and settings — every single day all across America.”
Last summer, a 6-year-old boy in Florida was denied entry to his school because of his dreadlocks.
“When is enough going to be enough,” Clinton Stanley Sr., the father of the Florida 6-year-old, wrote in an email to USA TODAY. “What all do we have to go through for people to know that we have a right to human rights? It’s crazy that in 2019 that children cannot get an education because of their hair.”
According to the bill’s text, hair “remains a rampant source of racial discrimination with serious economic and health consequences, especially for black individuals.”
Employers will still be permitted to require employees to secure their hair for safety or hygienic reasons.
New York City adopted similar legislation earlier this year.