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Hair style in employment bias familiar issue to many Missourians

To some, it may be just about fashion and fads. To others, it’s a world of obstacles and vehicles preventing or enabling you to live and thrive in a just and fair society. There’s a reasonable chance your first impression of the topic depends on your hair and your racial background.

Recent Missouri battles over protective hair styles

Back in 2013, Missouri received national attention when an African American employee claimed her St. Peter employer created a new policy against dreadlocks only weeks after she, dreadlocks and all, was hired. The company commented that “a professional appearance is necessary for the success of the company.” She commented, “I’ve only been there for two months, and they came up with a policy. I feel like it’s degrading.”

The following year, two women filed a federal lawsuit challenging Missouri’s cosmetology licensing law for professionals who provide braiding, which they say requires no chemicals or scissors. They say the technique is needlessly discouraged by requiring an expensive and lengthy course of cosmetology study that doesn’t even teach traditional African braiding techniques. By late last year, Missouri had already eased the rules, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the braiders’ favor for good measure.

Several states appear poised to ban the bias

A proposed California law is currently making steady progress toward becoming law. Called CROWN for “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair,” the bill would give California new tools to combat racial discrimination in the workplace, education and housing.

The bill explicitly cites “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”

Protective hairstyles such as Afros, twists, Bantu knots, updos, and locks minimize damage to black people’s natural hair, in contrast to styles sometimes apparently more socially acceptable in predominantly white settings, particularly in professional contexts.

The California bill describes the effects of “continuing to enforce a Eurocentric image of professionalism through purportedly race-neutral grooming.”

Introducing the bill on the California Senate floor, its sponsor cited what black people have identified as “a defining and paradoxical struggle … to maintain what society has deemed a ‘professional image’ while protecting the health and integrity of their hair.”

Similar bills have also been introduced in New York and New Jersey, with high expectations that they will easily be enacted into law.

While no such introduction appears imminent in Missouri, we have seen more than our share of controversy in the media as well as deliberation in the courts about natural, or protective hair styles sometimes worn by African Americans.

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