The picture of Andrew Johnson, a black high school wrestler stood pre-match on December 19, 2018, while a white woman behind him clumsily hacked at his dreadlocks was an uncomfortable one. To resist would be to forfeit the match, said the referee (his cap did not comply with regulations, apparently). His mother described the scene as ‘brutally emotional’. It sent public opinion into a tailspin and prompted a Civil Rights Investigation.
Compound that incident with the many that came before and after it, and fast forward a year, and California has become the first state to officially sign the fittingly named Crown Act - ‘Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair' - into law (1 Jan 2020). In doing so, individual citizens are protected in their right to wear their natural hair however they please, whether in an afro, braids, twists or locks. Los Angeles Senator Holly Mitchell (D) who drafted and sponsored the bill, said the move acknowledges and affirms ‘inclusion, pride and choice’ in rebutting Eurocentric beauty standards, a notion that's reflected in the wording of the legislation. 'Professionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional'.
Los Angeles Senator Holly Mitchell | shutterstock
What society has deemed a professional image is a white one, comprised of privileged choices. It’s one that, if subjected to change, doesn't stigmatise styles or erase centuries of culture. Sociologist Chelsea Johnson, who holds a Ph.D in sociology and gender studies from USC, expects the move will have real ramifications in employment, particularly in the entertainment industry in L.A. Having interviewing women trying to get a foot in a hallowed Hollywood door, she despondently notes that 'many chose to straighten their hair for headshots or auditions, to appear more professional'.
Individual citizens are protected in their right to wear their natural hair however they please, whether in an afro, braids, twists or locks.
While California was the first state to officially ban natural-hair discrimination, a similar bill was introduced in the state of New York last year, with the city adopting an anti-discrimination measure in February 2019. In December, New Jersey followed suit.
Met with concurrent celebration and sadness, Tiffany Dena Loftin, youth and college director of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, reflected: 'I’m not going to say we shouldn’t have a law that allows us to wear our hair the way it naturally is, but it’s also sad that in 2019, we have to have one in the first place.'
Johnson won his fight, while his people are beginning to win their - long-overdue - right.