Let's Liberate Our Hair at Work This Labor Day | Opinion

Locs, cornrows, Senegalese twists and Fulani braids—all are unique hairstyles that are connected to specific ethnic groups across Africa. In traditional African culture, each hairstyle has a different origin story that symbolizes one's family background, social status, devoutness, tribe, marital status, or even fertility. For some ancient Africans, hair was a sacred part of the body, the styling of which was entrusted to close relatives. People thought that if a strand of hair fell into the hands of one's enemy, harm could befall the hair's owner. White slavers knew this, and they took advantage of it.

Throughout the horrors of the slave trade, enslaved Africans were stripped of everything, yet they still managed to keep their highly valued hair braiding customs alive. But while hairstyles were one of the few areas in which African cultural expression persisted, white slave owners exploited this valued tradition. Shaving the heads of enslaved Africans was a common form of punishment—and yet another way to exert power and control over their lives.

In 2021, white supremacy still defines superiority through hair—by punishing Black people, particularly women, who choose to wear their hair naturally. Even today, the curly, tightly coiled, kinky textured hair of Black people is often labeled by dominant culture in dress codes and in popular fashion as unacceptable.

Many employers still regulate natural hair and traditional styling with discriminatory dress codes that label Black hair as unprofessional, unkempt and not allowed. According to a 2019 survey, Black workers were 30 percent more likely to receive a formal grooming policy at work, at both the application process and the orientation phase. And Black women additionally reported being 80 percent more likely to change their natural hair to accommodate social expectations and norms at work.

A model is seen with cornrows
A model is seen with cornrows. Christian Vierig/Getty Images

But let's be clear—this kind of discrimination isn't about hair. It's about race. It's about anti-Blackness. It's about preserving white supremacy.

We can begin to demolish this racist legacy through the Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act. CROWN would finally protect Black folks' right to wear their hair the way their ancestors did. The law would make it clear that discrimination based on natural and protective hairstyles associated with people of African descent is a prohibited form of racial or national origin discrimination.

But while the CROWN Act would make race-based hair discrimination illegal in the workplace and in schools—thus protecting freedom of expression and Black culture—it alone will not dismantle white supremacy in the workplace. As long as the legal concept of "at-will employment" exists, private sector employers in the U.S. can still fire us for how Black folks wear their hair. That's because, under at-will employment, bosses are not required to give a reason when firing—they can simply fire workers whenever they see fit, no legal questions asked unless the person fired can prove its an illegal reason (which is extremely difficult thing to do for most workers). This protects racist employers from having to explain themselves when they want to fire Black workers who wear their hair naturally. So, even if CROWN does change the dress codes in this country—which is sorely needed—it cannot fully protect Black workers from the whims of a racist boss.

What's more, even if you can prove that your boss fired you unfairly and for racist reasons, the process for being wrongfully fired or discriminated against is a long one. Discrimination cases are often hard to prove in court. However, if you and your fellow workers banded together to complain about racist dress codes and you were fired as a result, you have another option: going to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to file a case with them for firing you for exercising your right to take collective action. But NLRB cases can take months or years to be resolved. By the time the case is resolved, you'll likely have another job and won't want to go back to your old employer. This is especially problematic for Black workers, who are two times more likely to face illegal retaliation at work. Despite the progress of the CROWN Act and a campaign to push it to a federal level, just one form of legislation isn't enough to confront the systemic bias that Black people face in the workplace. We also need comprehensive labor reform.

That's where the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act comes in. PRO is a labor reform bill in the U.S. Senate that would make it much easier for coworkers to band together and confront racist bosses without fear of retaliation or firings. With PRO, bosses would have to spend more time justifying firings—and "I fired them because they refused to get a haircut" wouldn't cut it. The PRO Act would also make it much easier for employees to sue their current or former employers for unfair firing and discrimination. This means you could have a decision on your case in a matter of months instead of years.

In 2020, lawmakers proclaimed Black Lives Matter and made commitments to ending systemic racism—and you best believe that they already had their Black Labor Day tweets and Facebook posts scheduled. If lawmakers really care about Black lives, if they really care about Black workers, they will pass the CROWN Act and the PRO Act in 2021. These are once-in-a-generation opportunities that will finally remove barriers to increasing worker power and protecting Black culture—the culture that white supremacists have been trying to steal from us since our ancestors came off the slave ships in the 17th century. We must pass the PRO Act and CROWN Act to end race-based hair discrimination, change power dynamics at work and give working people a real say in our future.

Tanya Wallace-Gobern is the executive director of the National Black Worker Center Project, a position she has held since 2016.

Erica Smiley is the executive director of Jobs With Justice, the first Black woman to hold the position.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.