'Hair is our crown': York City seeks to ban race-based hair discrimination

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

York City Council Vice President Edquina Washington fields a lot of questions about her hair.

People have variously asked if it's real, if it's natural and if they could touch it to see how it feels.

"I'm not a pet or an animal. I'm a human being," Washington told The York Dispatch, "and so those are situations that are very discriminatory and also make individuals feel very uncomfortable."

That's why she's introducing a policy, similar to those recently passed in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with the aim of protecting people against bias based on hair texture and wearing protective styles, such as braids, cornrows and dreadlocks.

York City Councilwoman Edquina Washington is seeking reelection in the May 21 primary (Photo courtesy of Edquina Washington).

"How our natural hair looks is how our hair is," Washington said, "and we should not be discriminated against at jobs, for housing or anything just because of our hairstyle."

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At its meeting Tuesday, the council will introduce the CROWN Act, amending its human relations ordinance to protect hairstyles. The act is modeled on a nationwide movement — the acronym stands for "Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair." A bill passed the U.S. House in March but would need to pass the Senate before moving forward to President Joe Biden's desk.

“Discrimination against Black hair is discrimination against Black people,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., one of the national bill's sponsors. "Implicit and explicit biases against natural hair are deeply ingrained in workplace norms and society at large and continue the legacy of dehumanizing Black people. This is a violation of our civil rights, and it happens every day across the country."

At a York City Council committee meeting last week, Human Relations Commission Chair Stephanie Seaton spoke frankly about her own experiences.

"I can speak to personal experience about being discriminated against," Seaton said. "I've had all sorts of experiences with my hair and being discriminated against, people touching my hair." 

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A similar measure was first enacted in California in 2019, after research showed that Black professionals have been expected to conform their hairstyles to fit aesthetically with primarily white workplaces.

One study conducted by the cosmetics company Unilever showed that 80% of Black women said they believed they needed to alter their hairstyles to fit in.

Stephanie Seaton, of York City, reads a statement from Debra Grier, of Aiken, S.C., daughter of Lillie Belle Allen, during the Life and Legacy of Lillie Belle Allen Celebration, organized by Call to Action Worldwide, in York City, Tuesday, July 21, 2020. The date marks 51 years since Lillie Belle Allen, 27, of Aiken, S.C., was shot and killed during the York race riots while visiting family in York in 1969. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Seaton said that, after much discussion, the York City Human Relations Commission concluded that it must add hair as a protected class. 

"We take very seriously opening up the ordinance to amend it," Seaton said. "People are discriminated against for many different reasons, unfortunately all of them are not unlawful reasons, but we thought this worthy to include in the human relations ordinance." 

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Washington said the protections will help young people to grow up with the understanding that they don't need to change their hair. The message, she said, should be that their natural hair is what professionalism looks like.

"I've worn my hair natural for the last 20 years of my life in various hairstyles, and I've been brought up around hair all my life, and hair is our crown and beautiful," she said.

Edquina Washington talks with a customer at her Redeemed Queen booth during the Juneteenth York 2021 celebration at Campus Park in York City Saturday, June 19, 2021. President Joe Biden signed a bill on Thursday making June 19 a federal holiday, commemorating the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas learned they were free. Washington is a York City Council member. Bill Kalina photo

The York chapter of the NAACP also supports the amended ordinance.

"Official discrimination against someone’s natural hair is as unacceptable as any other form of discrimination against Black and Brown Americans," chapter Vice President Ophelia Chambliss said. "It is unfortunate that such legislation has to be issued and we hope that it will be backed by measures of accountability."

After the amendment's introduction Tuesday, the first opportunity to vote on the amended ordinance will be the May 18 meeting.

In addition to the amended human relations ordinance, the council will also introduce a bill amending the residency requirement for York City employees to include York County and all of its contiguous counties.

Currently, York City's ordinance requires certain employees to live within the York City limits. The rule has been criticized by employees over the years as overly restrictive. 

Tuesday's meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at York City Hall, 101 S. George St. The meeting will also be streamed on the city's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/CityofYorkPA and on the White Rose Community TV's YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/c/WhiteRoseCommunityTV.

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.