In an effort to protect natural hair and prejudice against people of colour, New Jersey lawmakers passed a bill that effectively bans discrimination against a person based on their hairstyle or hair texture in a unanimous 8-0 vote. The New Jersey Assembly Labour Committee approved the bill on Monday, but it must be signed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy before it can be enacted into law. In doing this, New Jersey becomes the third state — alongside New York and California — to introduce an anti-hair discrimination ban.
The catalyst behind this particular bill was 16-year-old Andrew Johnson, a bi-racial student on the wrestling team at Buena Regional High School in Buena, New Jersey. On 19 December 2018, Johnson was preparing for a wrestling match when referee Alan Maloney, who is white, gave the wrestler an ultimatum: He told Johnson to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the wrestling match. Johnson opted to cut his hair and went on to win the match. A viral video showing a school official hastily cutting Johnson’s hair in the gymnasium sparked a ton of backlash.
New Jersey Lawmaker Angela McKnight said the video broke her heart and inspired her to spearhead this bill. “Unfortunately, it’s all too common for African-Americans and people of colour to be subjected to discrimination at work or school for wearing their hair in braids, twists, and dreadlocks or embracing their natural curls,” McKnight said in a statement.
The bill would amend the Law Against Discrimination so that the term “race” includes traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, hair type and protective hairstyles. A 2016 study conducted by the Perception Institute found that a majority of people, regardless of race or gender, hold some bias against women of colour based on their hair. Another study, conducted by Dove, found Black women are 50% more likely to be sent home or to know a Black woman who has been sent home from work because of her hair.
“If a person of colour wants to embrace their cultural identity by wearing their hair in a certain style, they should be free to do so without fear of prejudice,” said lawmaker Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, who sponsored the bill. “No one should be told to straighten, cut or change their hair in any way to meet certain norms. It’s time we enshrine these values into our law.” New Jersey, the third state with a hair discrimination ban, modelled its legislation after California’s Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN.
As we’ve seen with Gabrielle Union’s recent experience on America’s Got Talent, hair discrimination can happen whether you’re a high school student or a Hollywood actress. After Union was fired from the show, reports showed that the co-host was told multiple times that her rotating hairstyles were “too black” for the audience of America’s Got Talent.
“This is exhausting, anxiety inducing, and at times frightening but being able to speak truth to power feeds my soul,” Union tweeted in response.