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California to become first state to ban discrimination against natural hair

"Policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on Black individuals," the measure says.
RuslanDashinsky / Getty Images/iStockphoto

California's state assembly voted 69-0 to pass a bill Thursday that includes hair texture and hairstyles under its equal rights protections, becoming the first state to ban discrimination against natural hair. The bill now goes to the desk of California Gov. Gavin Newsom to be signed into law.

The bill, which the Senate approved in April, updates the state's anti-discrimination law so that the term "race" includes "traits historically associated with race." Legislators acknowledged in the measure's text that society has subjected certain features equated with “blackness” to unequal treatment.

"Workplace dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on Black individuals as these policies are more likely to deter Black applicants and burden or punish Black employees than any other group," the bill's text stated.

California's new measure is the first statewide ban on natural hair discrimination in the country. The New York City Commission on Human Rights passed similar protections in February, classifying restrictions on natural hair in workplaces, schools and public places as racial discrimination.

The New York City guidelines point specifically to the rights of people to maintain their “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”

Advocates for such protections argue that unequal treatment for black citizens who wear natural, chemical-free hairstyles has extended out of the workplace and into schools, subjecting black children to similar discrimination.

Patricia Okonta, a legal fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told NBC News in February that in recent years there has been an uptick of stories surrounding children being targeted for natural hair textures and styles prohibited in school dress codes.

That can cause students to lose out educationally, if they are suspended or forced to transfer to another school because of hair policies, she said.

“Students are having educational opportunities disrupted for simply being themselves,” Okonta said. “For embracing their blackness."

The natural hair movement, which encourages black people to wear their hair in its normal, coiled, coarse or curly state, started when more people began shunning chemical relaxers and embracing their Afro-textured hair for health and cosmetic reasons.

Recent studies have linked the ingredients in relaxers, which chemically straighten hair, to uterine fibroids, cancer, and other illnesses. Mintel, a market research firm, estimates that retail sales of at-home relaxers declined 22.7 percent from 2016 to 2018.

Natural hairstyles, such as braids and dreadlocks, are also appealing because they can require minimal upkeep, although dreadlocks are often started on short hair and must be regularly maintained.