Commentary

We who wear natural hairstyles shouldn’t have to change it for employment | Tammy C. Barney

Louisiana legislation banning ‘clear-cut discrimination’ failed this session

June 16, 2021 2:47 pm

Columnist, Tammy C. Barney, who wears locs, spoke to Urban League of Louisiana CEO Judy Reese Morse, who’s worn natural styles more than 20 years, about potential discrimination Black women face when they wear their hair in its natural texture. (Photos courtesy of Tammy C. Barney and the Urban League of Louisiana)

A White manager was concerned when my best friend — like me, a Black woman — came to work with her hair in tiny twists.

“So tell me about your hair,” she said. “It’s just twisted, right?”

My friend, looking perplexed, answered, “No, it’s locked.”

“Well, we’re going to say that it’s twisted,” the manager said. Otherwise, my friend would have had two choices: cut her hair or lose her job. Her company did not allow locs. That was in 2008.

In 2021, Black people still are forced to choose between embracing their identities and earning an income. Three bills filed during the recent session of the Louisiana Legislature would have prohibited the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles, such as braids, locs, twists or Bantu knots.

The bills failed.

“This is another example of systems that allow micro and macro aggressions against African Americans,” said Judy Reese Morse, president and CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana in a phone interview Monday. “If systems are not constantly reviewed, there cannot be an understanding of what real inclusiveness is. This was a missed opportunity to show understanding and respect for everyone’s culture and heritage.”

The Urban League of Louisiana joined the effort to stop race-based discrimination of natural hairstyles and textures in 2018 after a sixth grader was sent home from a Catholic school in Terrytown. Administrators said her braided extensions violated school policy and her family said the principal said the school didn’t “want them (Black girls) wearing fake hair.”  The girl’s parents and another family filed a suit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, claiming that only Black girls at the school were investigated, reprimanded and subsequently punished for wearing hair extensions. The suit was moved to federal court, but the families later dropped it. National backlash led the school to rescind its racist hair policy.

Bills prohibiting natural hair discrimination fail to make it through Louisiana Legislature

 In 2019, the soap manufacturer Dove, the National Urban League, Color of Change and the Western Center on Law and Poverty started a national campaign: CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act. The campaign supports the stance that Black people have a right to wear their hair as it naturally grows out of their heads and that it should be illegal for employers to force Black women to use chemicals to straighten their hair to fit a norm created by White people.

 According to the New York City Commission on Human Rights, “bans or restrictions on natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people are often rooted in white standards of appearance and perpetuate racist stereotypes that Black hairstyles are unprofessional. Such policies exacerbate anti-black bias in employment, at school, while playing sports, and in other areas of daily living.”

Morse agrees. “How hair grows naturally out of one’s head should not be the basis for discrimination,” she said. “It also is not a determining factor of whether or not Black people are capable of doing a job or a certain set of responsibilities.”

California was the first state to pass the CROWN Act. New York and nine other states have done the same. New Orleans and Shreveport have also adopted the act.

 “It’s time for this act to become a state law,” Morse said. “It is included in our list of priorities to pursue again next year.”

My locs reach the middle of my back. I began growing them in 2005. Because I was in print journalism, my hairstyle was not an issue — at least no one said it was an issue. But at a journalism conference, young Black women with natural hairstyles asked me what they should do if they were offered a TV job that required them to change their styles. I told them to decide what was more important: their natural hairstyle or earning a living.

Today, I would tell them to get a lawyer and file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — even though they’ve represented Black women who weren’t granted relief. Ideally, if the CROWN Act became the law of the land, Black students could focus less on how they style their hair and more on learning their craft.

Morse, who has worn natural styles since 1998, received a special email when she was the communications director in the lieutenant governor’s office. “I am just so proud and happy to see a Black woman have such a prominent job and have locs,” the email read.

That email was “so sweet and beautiful,” Morse said. “It really helped me to understand that Black representation in the workforce extends to your hair. It is so important for Black women to wear their hair as they choose. There is no room for this clear-cut form of discrimination.”

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Tammy C. Barney
Tammy C. Barney

Award-winning columnist Tammy Carter Barney earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans before starting her career at The Daily Comet in Thibodaux. She covered city government and education, wrote a column and was the first Black woman to work as the paper's managing editor. She worked at The Times-Picayune as a bureau chief, assistant city editor, TV editor and columnist and while there earned a MBA from Tulane University. She left The Times-Picayune for The Orlando Sentinel, where she served as an editor and wrote a weekly column for the lifestyle section. Her writing has won her multiple awards, including the prestigious Vernon Jarrett Award for Journalistic Excellence for a series of columns on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In addition to writing, Tammy is passionate about quilting and singing with the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Praise Team and Contemporary Choir. She also serves as chair of the New Orleans Human Rights Commission. For 17 years, Tammy was married to the late Keith G. Barney. She has one daughter and one granddaughter.

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