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Minnesota House passes bill banning hair discrimination

28 February 2022

Minnesotans would be protected from discrimination based on how they wear their hair under a bill the House passed Monday.

The so-called CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, adds a definition of race that is inclusive of natural hairstyles and textures to the Minnesota Human Rights Act. It’s an effort to break down barriers that Black Minnesotans face at work, school and other public spaces for wearing hairstyles such as braids, locs and twists.

The bill “will clearly define that no one should be prevented from a job or an education because of the way that their hair naturally grows from their head,” said Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis, its chief House sponsor.

Agbaje, who is Black, said at a Feb. 3 committee hearing that she straightened her hair for most of her life “because of a fear of losing a job or not being able to be taken as seriously.”

“We know that racial discrimination is not always overt, and this bill ensures that discrimination based on biases or stereotypes is stopped or held accountable,” Agbaje said Monday.

“While natural hair and protective hairstyles are often most associated with people of African descent, the law does protect everyone from having their human rights violated.”

Before Monday’s bipartisan 104-25 vote, legislators of color reflected on their own experiences of discrimination and shared hopes for the future of their children and grandchildren.

Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, said that as she grew up, her father told her she was a lion and her hair was her mane. But in one of her first professional jobs, she said, “a manager suggested that I would ‘command more authority’ if I straightened my hair.”

“In an instant, my degrees, my relevant experience, my skills were all meaningless,” Hollins said. “I felt ashamed; I felt weak, and I felt like I was inherently inferior.”

Rep. Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said she was born to a Black father and white mother in the late 1960s in the district she now represents.

“It was a difficult time,” she said, recalling that she had “very curly, tight hair that my mom wasn’t too sure what she could do with at the time.”

“Hair should never be a reason to be discriminated against,” Demuth said. “It should never be a reason to either have an opportunity or not have an opportunity.”

The Minnesota Human Rights Act, enacted in 1967, prohibits discrimination based on race and other protected classes. While Minnesotans who experience discrimination based on their natural hair could file a complaint with the state Human Rights Department under the current law, the CROWN Act provides “a more explicit definition,” Agbaje said.

The bill’s chances in the Republican-controlled Senate are uncertain. The House also passed the CROWN Act in 2020, but the legislation went nowhere in the Senate.

A lot has happened since then, including the global racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder by a former Minneapolis police officer.

“I believe that the environment is right, and I think that we in Minnesota have been through a lot in order to understand that we have to be a much more inclusive Minnesota,” said Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, chief sponsor of the Senate bill.

And though the Senate version has no co-sponsors, Champion said, “I’m not going to stop until somebody signs onto this bill.”

If the Senate passes the proposal, Minnesota will join more than a dozen states and more than 30 cities and counties with similar measures. A federal version of the CROWN Act passed the U.S. House in 2020 but stalled in the Senate.

A nationwide survey by CROWN Act proponents in 2019 found Black women are 1.5 times more likely than white women to be sent home from work because of their hair. Black survey respondents were 80% more likely than white respondents to agree with the statement: “I have to change my hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.”

“This bill brings clarity and peace of mind to Black people, both men and women, who have been forced to change their natural hair in order to adapt to a workplace,” said Tiffani Daniels, managing director of the Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity.

“And, on the other side, companies reap the benefits of a more engaged workforce that can more positively contribute in the workplace.”

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