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It’s time to end natural hair discrimination at work

Summertime was the time I felt most uncomfortable about my hair, because when I switched to the predominantly white school district of Bellevue Public Schools, it was the first time I was going to almost exclusively majority white neighborhood pools. It’s where I have one of my earliest memories of playing the PoC game – where I try to find another brown or Black person in the crowd of swimsuits and frazzled parents. 

My white friends teased me ruthlessly about how quickly my hair would frizz the moment water touched it. To this day, I still have grown men and women joke that I’m like a Gremlin, swerving and skirting unexpected and non-consensual contact with water and humidity. At the time, I didn’t have the language to explain why I felt so humiliated and hurt by their racist reduction of me to a pet (who loves fried chicken) that becomes a loud, obscene monster when wet. It was one of my first, and most vividly recurring, experiences with describing immutable, unchangeable, aspects of my racial identity outside of the melanin in my skin. 

Fast forward to high school. I’ve scored an incredible internship at a fairly prestigious architectural engineering firm in town. It’s only my second job, and it’s my first trial by fire in the explicit and implicit lessons my parents, church family, FBLA advisor, and countless others throughout my childhood had taught me about fitting into corporate culture. Classic business casual clothes? Check. Notebook to take notes? Check. Smile and eager to please attitude? Nailed it. Regular appointment with my hair stylist to make sure my bob chemically straightened? Check.  

I’ve spent thousands of dollars trying to make my hair fit into what’s been normalized as “professional hair” in the workplace. To be honest, it was predominantly a reflexive decision: I saw it simply as an “If, Then” scenario. If this is what the workplaces I’m in think is professional, then of course I’d assimilate into their standards to work there. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that the jibes and “feedback”, and even, at times, disciplinary action, specifically relating to my hair were actually perfect examples of racial discrimination and harrassment. Specifically the tropes associated with my appearance that are used as validation for their dehumanization and systematic oppression, like big lips, a wide nose, and tightly coiled curly hair. 

There are many stories from people across the African diaspora that share their experiences with being pressured to “tame” their natural hair, unraveling the natural coils to fit within Eurocentric beauty standards of straight hair. And for people across the diaspora, this has been an immutable facet of our identity that we’ve been forced to modify for centuries, dating all the way back to slavery. Even Thomas Jefferson used our hair texture as a facet of our identity to justify discrimination and dehumanization. Jefferson noted the “absence of long, flowing hair” as a validation for refusing the integration of Black people after emancipation.

In the 1700s, the Tignon laws legally required Black & Creole women in Louisiana to wear a scarf covering their hair because, according to historian Virginia M. Gould, the Spanish governor hoped the laws would discourage and control the women “who competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.” This law forced them to cover their natural curls and almost completely limited the styles that were integral in how they expressed their identity.

Current opposition seems to fear an expansion of government authority (which this bill will not explicitly do – it will, in fact, just further define and clarify current anti-discrimination laws) and a fear of restriction on legitimate and ethical private businesses (which have nothing to fear if they are acting ethically). Some offer heavily coded arguments full of blatant examples of the kind of discriminatory racial tropes about natural hair that this bill seeks to prohibit, making correlations that allude to natural hair as unprofessional, unclean and/or unsafe. 

As Senator Cavanaugh pointed out in her closing statement, LB 1060 costs nothing to implement, nor will it have any effect on current ethical business environments. It will in turn provide protections for current and future workers in Nebraska from subtle and overt discrimination based on an immutable characteristic of our identity – our hair. 

The case for the passage of this bill is clear – from the packed room of concerned Nebraskans on the day of the Judiciary Committee hearing, to the other states passing similar bills, to the court cases across the nation, to the people advocating for it every day on social media. This is important. It’s a simple step forward. And the simple clarification of these immutable characteristics of racial identity for workers in Nebraska can make all the difference for the continued growth and success for our state. 

Call your senator today and tell them to vote YES to LB 1060 once it returns to the floor for select file. We need your support, and their vote.