Last year, 11-year-old Faith Fennidy was sent home from her Louisiana school for wearing braided extensions, a protective hairstyle that allowed her more flexibility to study and swim without having to re-style her hair every night. The school maintained that her hairstyle violated its policy banning extensions, wigs, and hair pieces of any kind — a rule that had only gone into effect the prior summer.
When her older brother posted a video of Fennidy walking out of school sobbing uncontrollably after being told her shoulder-length ponytail wasn’t suitable for the classroom, it quickly went viral. “Experiencing hair discrimination at school really was unfair,” Fennidy, now 13, tells Refinery29. “I was hurt and disappointed with the principal and staff for creating the policy in the first place. It was very upsetting because my hair had nothing to do with my education or behaviour.” The school district has since rescinded its policy.
For black people everywhere — especially black girls and women — experiences like Fennidy’s are a nightmarish reality. Across America, they’re being unfairly policed for their natural hairstyles, even being dismissed from school or bullied at work because those hairstyles have been deemed “distracting” or “unprofessional.”
Last December, a high school wrestler in New Jersey was forced to cut his dreadlocks right before a match. The referee said Andrew Johnson’s hairstyle wasn’t “compliant” with regulation. The incident sparked outrage among the black community, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said he was deeply disturbed by it. “No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity and playing sports,” Murphy tweeted at the time.
New Jersey Senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker recently marked the one-year anniversary of the incident. “A year ago, a referee forced Andrew Johnson to cut his dreadlocks during a wrestling match in NJ or risk forfeiting,” Sen. Booker tweeted. “He deserved better. Rules about hair length often discriminate against natural hairstyles. This must stop.”
Last week, New Jersey approved a bill that would ban discrimination against someone because of their hairstyle and hair texture. “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,” said New Jersey State Assemblywoman Angela McKnight in a press release. The bill will need to be passed by the full Assembly and state Senate and signed by Murphy to become state law.
It’s evidence of slow-moving progress. Just two states — California and New York — have officially passed laws prohibiting racial discrimination based on hairstyle. Put more bluntly: In 48 states, it’s currently legal to discriminate against someone simply because of how they choose to wear their hair. As recently as October, a North Carolina judge ruled that while calling a black woman’s natural hairstyle “unprofessional” qualifies as “offensive,” it is not legally discriminatory.
California State Senator Holly J. Mitchell disagrees.“I have worn locs my entire time in office, and I can assure you my colleagues do not question my ability or professionalism,” Sen. Mitchell tells Refinery29. “Wearing my hair in braids, twists, and locs should be my protected right to choose, and needs to be for all black men and women.”
Sen. Mitchell has been a leading voice in the nationwide battle against hair discrimination. She championed the California statute SB 188, better known as the CROWN Act, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law in July and goes into effect on January 1, 2020. The law prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture by extending protection for both categories under the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the California Education Code.
Although the movement began in California, the ultimate goal is to spread the CROWN Act legislation to all 50 states. Unilever, the beauty conglomerate behind Dove, is sponsoring its progress through The CROWN Coalition, which provides monetary support and hosts town halls and activations. On its website, people can sign a petition to bring anti-discrimination laws to their state.
“It is time for us all to create open and respectful spaces for everyone,” Sen. Mitchell says. “I want to see more black women and men choose how to wear their hair without fear of bias or discrimination, which is the goal of the CROWN Act. And [I want] hiring managers to be educated about the new law to prevent preconceived biases about natural hairstyles from influencing hiring decisions.”
In October, Dove hosted a town hall discussion in Los Angeles to celebrate California’s landmark legislation. Sen. Mitchell served as a panelist alongside award-winning producer and writer Shonda Rhimes as well as Fennidy and other black girls and women who have experienced hair discrimination.
For Rhimes, who previously partnered with Dove Real Beauty Productions to change how women are portrayed in film and television, it’s an issue that hits close to home. Rhimes says she’s had tough conversations with her own children about self-image issues stemming from hair discrimination.
“I have spent time, like real time, with my little ones trying to make one of my daughters feel comfortable with her hair,” Rhimes tells Refinery29. “I feel like that must have come from hearing, ‘Why doesn’t your hair look like your sister’s hair?’ She’s seven. That’s a really early age to feel uncomfortable with the way you look, and she’s a beautiful girl. The idea that she would feel bad about the way she looks is horrifying to me.”
While Rhimes describes passing the CROWN Act as “making a huge difference,” she cautions against settling for the little progress that’s happened so far. “We’ve only done it in two states right now, and we have 48 to go,” she says. “I think if [discrimination] happened because of the colour of your hair — like if they said, ‘Your hair is blonde. You have to go home’— people would be in an uproar.”
Fennidy remembers the discrimination she experienced making her feel sad and worried about falling behind in school. “I felt like I was going to miss out on my 6th grade year with my friends,” she shares.
While support from peers is certainly important, it will take more than that to ensure cases like Fennidy’s don’t continue to happen to young women around the country. Eighteen-year-old sisters Mya and Deanna Cook, also panelists at the Dove town hall, made national headlines when they wore their hair in braided extensions, effectively pushing back against a discriminatory policy at their Boston-area school. But it wasn’t easy.
“I felt supported by some classmates, but the majority of my classmates did not seem to be supportive,” Mya recalls. “People do not like when rules are pushed back on, and they think rules should be followed. They did not understand the seriousness of the situation and that what my school was doing was wrong.”
Deanna says the experience left her embarrassed and humiliated. “A lot of times, the excuse for banning certain hair is that it’s ‘distracting,’” Deanna explains. “What is more distracting is feeling like a part of your body doesn’t belong and is ‘hurting’ your fellow classmates. This experience made me feel like I did something wrong but couldn’t fix it.”
A lot of times, the excuse for banning certain hair is that it’s ‘distracting.' What is more distracting is feeling like a part of your body doesn’t belong.
Those seeds of insecurity and self doubt can have reverberating effects over the course of a lifetime. According to Dove, a black woman is 80% more likely to change her natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work. What’s more, black women are 50% more likely to be sent home or know of a black woman being sent home from the workplace because of her hair.
The Cooks’ school has since dropped its controversial ban on hair extensions. But the sisters still had to step up as martyrs against the policy, proving that we have a long way to go.
“It’s important for administrators to look at the policies they’re putting in place and question why they’ve put them into place,” Rhimes says. “Why do you feel like somebody having braids is disruptive? Exactly what about a braid is disruptive to you? What does it signal? What are you trying to say? What does it suggest? You need to start thinking about your own bias.”
Travel and accommodations were provided to the author by Dove for the purpose of writing this story.