Roadblocks in the Kansas Legislature have hindered the progress of the CROWN Act since the anti-discrimination legislation was introduced in 2020.
The biggest issue advocates have run into is trying to get policy makers to understand the importance of the CROWN Act, Kansans who have worked to pass the legislation said. However, a lack of communication between legislators in the House and Senate, a lack of awareness about the issue and the fact that hair discrimination is not a priority in the Legislature have all hurt the CROWN Act’s progress.
The CROWN Act, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair, was created in 2019 to create protection around race-based hairstyles such as braids, locs, dreads and twists. The bill’s purpose is to create protection for Black and brown individuals who are more likely to be discriminated against for wearing texturized hairstyles at work or school environments.
Michele L. Watley, owner of Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet in Kansas City, said that last year, she spent most of her time educating legislators on why hair discrimination is an issue. As Watley worked to convince legislators that this was a problem in Kansas, a Black cheerleader at the University of Ottawa dealt with the discrimination the CROWN Act works against.
Talyn Jefferson was kicked off the cheerleading squad for wearing box braids at practice, a protective hairstyle under the CROWN Act, in February. Her aunt, Nikki Edwards, said that Jefferson’s life has not been the same since experiencing the microaggression.
“She’s always been a good kid, quiet with no issues and just a good person, so, that's why it was just really upsetting to see her go through what she went through without university support,” Edwards said.
Edwards reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of her neice with her parents’ permission to seek out justice for Jefferson Edwards confirmed that Jefferson has a case with the ACLU of Kansas versus Ottawa University, but she could not speak on the issue due to ongoing legal action.
Despite multiple attempts, Ottawa University officials did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication. According to the Kansas City Star, the university has not said why Jefferson was removed from the squad but has denied it had anything to do with her hairstyle.
Due to the Ottawa incident, Jefferson has decided to transfer to Prairie View A&M, a historically black college in Texas, where she plans to try out for the cheerleading team.
“She's gotten backlash, threatening texts and communication from people who have sided with the coach, but we wanted to make sure as her family, we were in her corner and advocating for her,” Edwards said.
How are Kansans fighting hair discrimination?
In January 2020, Breanna Bell, the 25-year-old founder of Prestige Hair Studio in Lawrence, started Curlology, a class that contacted cosmetology schools and salons to address hair service industry gaps.
“Being an educator, I wanted to break down the stereotypes that stylists had because those thoughts alone is what’s hindering them from doing proper practices,” Bell said.
Bell noticed that her classes consisted of Black and white stylists with biases about hair. During the summer of 2020, as racial tensions began to heighten with the police killing of George Floyd, Bell noticed previous Curlology students showing interest in more education.
“A lot of our students reached back out to us and they were saying like, you know, what can we do?” Bell said.
Shortly after, Bell and her brother, co-owner and barber Isaiah Bell, began brainstorming. Later that year, Breaking Barriers was founded. Prestige Hair Studio hosted classes on Sunday and Mondays, addressing verbal and non-verbal communication issues within the hair community.
“I started calling some friends in the community and we created skits centered around different incidents that have happened in other salons and people who've called us to complain like ‘hey, this just happened in my salon today,’’’ Bell said.
Bell said she had always known about the CROWN Act, but at the time there wasn’t as much chatter about it in social media. Around the same time that she began Breaking Barriers classes, the CROWN Act launched its official Instagram page.
Bell continues to advocate for hair equality and anti-discrimination practices by serving on the Kansas Board of Cosmetology Curriculum Subcommittee. She began serving on the board, which is comprised of eight members in August 2020, but said that the board is still in the pre stages of completing work due to racist people on the board.
“Anytime the conversation about texture comes up, this woman decides she wants to basically say she doesn't get why Kansas is trying to make efforts toward diversifying their curriculum and that she thinks it's pointless,” Bell said. “She said some other things along the lines of like Black people are just different from white people and there's nothing they can do about it and I’m just really tired. She said if we're going to keep making efforts for this, we might as well have a Black license and a white license.”
Kansas struggles to gain progress
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau introduced the CROWN Act to the Senate in February 2020, but it died shortly after due to the rise of the pandemic. She re-introduced the act Feb. 3, 2021.
Watley, who founded Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for Black voices in the communities they serve, said her organization worked with many legislators to get the CROWN Act introduced in 2020.
“I spent most of my time educating legislators on why this is still an issue,” Watley said.
Watley said she was disappointed when the bill died in 2020, partially because she did not feel like it was given priority. She felt this was proven when S.B. 158, a bill that would have confirmed the polka as the state dance, took precedence over hair discrimination.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a Democrat from Overland Park, on Feb. 25 introduced the House version, Bill 2424.
“Even though I come at this from a privileged perspective, I also do understand this whole idea behind this culture, where we are expected to look a certain way and to fit ourselves into an appearance that is socially acceptable,” Clayton said. “I'm a white woman from Johnson County. I don't understand, but I can put myself in the place of other people and push something that will do a lot of good.”
Faust-Goudeau and Clayton did not initially work together on the CROWN Act bills, but they are now working in tandem to push the same legislation.
Clayton said although there has not been any further action regarding the bill, the Federal and State Affairs Committee is one of the few exempt panels that can technically meet right up until the very end of a session to have a hearing. The House and Senate adjourned early Saturday morning until May 26 at 10 a.m. for Sine Die, the official last day of the session.
Legal advice and expertise
Wendy Greene, a law professor at Drexel University and founder of the #freethehair movement, advocates for protection against hair discrimination and helped the first CROWN Act bill pass in California on July 3, 2019.
Greene served as a legal expert and also provided witness testimony for the bill.
“I testified on behalf of that legislation, as well as advised then Sen. Mitchell, who introduced the bill, I advised her legal staff on the bill, the scope of the bill and the effect of the bill,” Greene said.
With her previous experience around the CROWN Act at the federal and state levels, Greene is optimistic about the Kansas bill’s potential for passage.
“I think there's a good precedent already set in terms of states that may not have a large African-American population, legislation, or even representatives for that matter, to push the bill," Green said. "The great thing about this bill is that it does help to bring people from all different backgrounds to really share their experiences as it relates to being the victim of discrimination or having to conform to certain Eurocentric norms so they could possibly prevent this kind of discrimination."
California’s Senate Bill 130 states that protective hairstyles include, but are not limited to braids, locs and twists.
“There are federal civil rights protections against discrimination on the basis of afros, but the moment that person locks, braids or twists that afro, then magically you are vulnerable to discrimination because you don't have any legal recourse,” Greene said.
Besides California, there are eight other states that have prohibited hair discrimination with the CROWN Act: New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado, Washington, Maryland and Connecticut.
Delaware became the ninth state to end hair discrimination by signing Senate Bill 192 into law April 13.
Though Kansas has been unable to pass the CROWN Act statewide, Kansas City councilwoman Melissa Robinson helped the CROWN Act pass at the municipal level in Missouri.
“The art of discrimination law is handled by our human relations department for the city of Kansas City," Robinson said. "You can't discriminate based on race, sexual orientation, religion. We decided to add hairstyles to the discrimination law."
This means that for Kansas City, Mo, residents, the CROWN Act will protect employers from discriminating or implementing hair and appearance grooming policies associated with race.
While Robinson is also hopeful that the CROWN Act will become law in Kansas, she recognizes the hardships of passing civil rights laws.
“We know our history tells us that when people or things are invisible, lawmakers in the community are like ‘it's not a problem or something that we should really be working on,’” Robinson said. “It does take time to educate people on the impacts of how this is happening, so I know that it's going to be a challenge.”