Women affected by natural-hair discrimination explain why it is still a problem in Washington state

A new bill could make it illegal to discriminate against people who wear styles such as Afros and braids, as well as religious head coverings like hijabs.

woman sitting in a salon

Nephyrtt Amen-Asia has dealt with employment discrimination in the past due to her natural hair style. As a hair dresser at Coven Salon in Madison Valley, she now cuts hair for clients who also deal with hair discrimination. A recent bill proposed by the state legislature would ban employers and schools from discriminating against braids, afros and other natural hair styles. Photographed Feb. 4, 2020. (Genna Martin for Crosscut)

A decade has passed since Nephyrtt Amen-Asia was turned down for a customer service job because of what she said was clear discrimination against her natural hair. 

“Back then I was using my middle name, Marie, so I'm sure they were not expecting a Black girl with long dreads to come to the interview,” said Amen-Asia. Despite having extensive experience, Amen-Asia said she was given “flimsy” excuses for why she didn’t get the job.

Now a hairstylist, Amen-Asia said she still sees the effects of hair discrimination on her clients, even if they don’t say so outright. 

“I have had naturally curly clients that get their hair straightened every couple of weeks or wear their hair straight because it's been deemed ‘unprofessional’ in the workplace to have their hair curly,” she explained. Among the few school-age clients she has, “it's more teasing from other children when a child comes to school with their hair in its down, curly state.”

But hair discrimination in the workplace and at school could soon become illegal in Washington.

State Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, recently introduced legislation to broaden the definition of racial discrimination to include protection for specific traits such as hair texture and protective hairstyles, although the proposal would not be limited to those traits only. This means that employers and schools would no longer be able to prevent employees and students from wearing their hair naturally, actions usually carried out through dress codes. Protective hairstyles can include Afros, dreadlocks and braids. 

Additionally, religious head coverings such as hijabs and turbans would be protected from discrimination under the proposal. 

Last week, the House Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee voted to advance the bill, meaning it could soon be voted on by the full House.

“This is legislation that makes sense and is long overdue,” Morgan said in a phone interview. The impact of the bill, she said, is that “Blacks and African Americans will stop being disproportionately affected” by discriminatory practices at the workplace and at school. She added that many of the chemicals used to straighten hair are very damaging, and that it shouldn’t matter how anyone wears their hair. 

Morgan also said there are double standards when it comes to hairstyles, so while a white person with dreadlocks might be seen as “cute,” a person of color will generally not receive the same reaction.

Amen-Asia said that she, too, believes there is a double standard with hairstyles. She said people of color are looked at as being “unkempt” for having certain hairstyles like dreadlocks or curls, a problem that doesn’t happen to their white counterparts.

In Texas, a teenager of color was recently told he couldn’t attend his own graduation if he refused to cut his dreadlocks. In New Jersey, a high school wrestler was told by a white referee to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match.

The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, which voiced support for the bill in an email, said the agency was aware of a hair discrimination complaint a few years ago in a Washington public school, but has not received any in recent years. A spokesperson for the agency noted, however, that “more clarity in the law would provide enhanced protections for our students and educators.”

The proposed legislation is already seeing support from several other sources. 

Kendrick Washington II is a civil rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. He said in an email that racial discrimination is an issue that the ACLU has and will always tackle. “Recognizing that the banning of certain hairstyles is rooted in racial discrimination is just a part of that,” Washington said. 

Morgan said local NAACP chapters are supportive as well. The Seattle King County NAACP did not respond to a request for comment. The NAACP has supported similar legislation in other states, including California, New York and New Jersey, which have all recently passed laws to make discrimination based on hairstyles illegal. 

Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place, chair of the House Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee, said in an email to Crosscut that she looks forward to helping Morgan pass the bill. She said it will “help ensure that our workplaces, schools and other public places are free from discrimination and bias of all kinds.”  

No one signed in to testify against the bill at a committee hearing on Jan. 28. More than a dozen people spoke in favor. The bill has also garnered some bipartisan support; two Republican House members have signed on as co-sponsors.

Organizations such as Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, Tacoma Urban League, and the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ all publicly testified in support of the measure.

Amen-Asia said she thinks the legislation is a necessary step forward for equality in the workplace and at school. She said it will reduce stress overall so people can focus more on being productive at work. 

“When you apply for a job or work at a company, your experience should do the talking for you,” she said. 

Other hairstylists familiar with discriminatory hair regulations agree.

Najamoniq Todd, a hairstylist who works at Embellish in Tacoma, said being judged by one’s appearance instead of job performance is “a gut-wrenching type of hurt.” Passing the legislation might not end all prejudice, but it would send a strong message nonetheless, Todd said.

If the measure passes, employers or schools that ask employees or students to change their hairstyle or remove their head wear would be breaking the law, and would be subject to a Washington State Human Rights Commission investigation. The commission would be responsible for enforcing mediation between the parties if there is evidence of wrongdoing. If mediation is unsuccessful, a judge could decide to award a complainant damages after considering the facts of the case.  

Complainants could also file a civil lawsuit. 

In both situations, plaintiffs would need to prove that there was disparate treatment or disparate impact. 

As for hairstylists like Todd and Amen-Asia who see the effects of discriminatory hair regulations through their clients' perspective, they believe the protective legislation would be invaluable. 

“I don’t know if it will change minds and hearts, but it will give the victims some sort of recourse against this personal attack against their natural state of beauty,” Todd said. “And that is more important than anything — to feel heard, to feel championed for and to feel vindicated.”

About the Authors & Contributors

Shauna Sowersby

Shauna Sowersby is reporting on the 2020 legislative session for Crosscut. Her work has appeared in The News Tribune and on-air at KNKX public radio.