When Stephanie M. Smith was an undergraduate college student in Virginia, an older Black man approached her in a supermarket and made a critical comment about her newly self-locked natural hair.
“He said, ‘You didn’t do that to your hair on purpose?’ Just me gallivanting upon with my life was so unacceptable to him,” recalled Smith, now a state delegate representing the city of Baltimore. “It’s not just non-Black people who have this internalized hatred. Plenty of Black people have absorbed this poison.”
Smith, who is Black, successfully pushed in 2020 for Maryland lawmakers to pass the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, which bans employment discrimination on the basis of racial perceptions regarding hair texture or styles such as Afros, locks and braids. Prior to the CROWN Act taking effect in October 2020, Black people could face employment loss or punishment in fields such as law enforcement, the airline industry and the armed services.
“As a person who wears my hair in locks, a lot of time people don’t realize the emotional labor that people put in so that they are not discriminated against in the workplace,” she said, recalling stories of how her fellow Black female lawyers would agonize over how to wear their hair during picture day at the firm.
Smith said the passage of similar laws in New York and California prompted her to introduce legislation in Maryland. “It’s not a cosmetic issue, it’s a civil rights issue. It’s the next leg in the evolution of the discrimination that has a disproportionate impact on Black and brown people,” Smith said.
Since the CROWN Act’s passage, Smith said, the eyes of many colleagues have been opened to the extent to which hair has been weaponized. She said she has also met with many people, from students to members of women’s groups, who now feel more empowered under the protection.
“It is giving people a true legal remedy. Before, they would just brush it off. It is building accountability,” she said.
Maryland employers who violate the CROWN Act face penalties that include, but are not limited to: monetary relief for the victim, including lost/back wages, overtime and actual damages. They may also be required to provide training for the employer and/or the employees, and to draft or revise anti-discrimination policies for all employees.
Civil penalties can be imposed starting at $500 for the first offense, $1,000 for the second offense and $2,500 for the third offense.
Prior to the law’s passage, Baltimore City’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights received two complaints relating to hair discrimination. Since the measure passed, the office has not received a single complaint.
“The legislation has a strong preemptive effect. The more education we do around the legislation, the greater the likelihood that no employee or job applicant will experience discrimination because of the way they wear their hair,” said Caylin Young, the office’s deputy director. “The legislation also supports individualism throughout our workforce. Employees and job applicants are free to wear their hair however they want, and not fear retribution or unfair consideration.”
The Maryland Commission on Civil Rights also reported no complaints under the new law.
Nicki Mayo, a 42-year-old Bowie resident who has worked in broadcast journalism for more than two decades, recalled the pain of her early years on air, when she was encouraged to wear her hair in a Eurocentric way.
“I wish the CROWN Act was around when I got out of school in 2001,” said Mayo, who currently works on-air for shows on TV One and Oxygen. She is now the editor at large for Black Women Unmuted, a platform dedicated to Black women and politics.
“All of my work in small markets on-air had consultants come and tell us how to look,” she added. “I had a permanent relaxer at the time. They had different advice for me every year. They told me to put weave in, or colors that were not natural to my skin hue. I was never encouraged to go natural. That hurts when you are not making a lot of money and you are trying to do the best with wardrobe, and they are coming after you for the hair that is naturally coming out of your head.”
Now, she loves wearing her natural curls on-air.
“They [curls] are bold and shiny and it really feels like me for once,” said Mayo, who worked at Baltimore station WMAR from 2012 to 2014 and is a past president of the Baltimore Association of Black Journalists. “The fact that most of my on-air work now is on a Black network, I feel so proud that I am wearing my natural hair on a Black network. I love the mainstreamness of it all. That is just so wild to me.”
Smith said she felt sorry for the older man who years ago disparaged her hairstyle in the grocery store. She believes he was conditioned to believe that natural hairstyles were unacceptable. She also realizes that if she didn’t have such a strong sense of self, his words could have been damning to her spirit.
“It could have been so chilling,” she said. “It could have made me stop [wearing my hair like that].”
Smith said she wants white people to know that “what’s most important about a person — your employee, colleague, classmates — is what’s inside their head, not on their head. I also want them to understand that what this law is doing is expanding the definition of discrimination to protect natural Black hair and protective hairstyles.”
The passage of the CROWN Act in Maryland has affected businesses — particularly in the beauty industry.
Celebrity hairstylist Ericka Cherrie estimates that 50% of the clients at her Baltimore salon, Create The Beautiful Salon, have natural hairstyles.
Prior to the law, a number of her clients would not display natural hairstyles. One went so far as “hiding” her dreadlocks under a wig while at work.
“Now people are more comfortable to say, ‘This is who I am,’” said Cherrie, who has done the hair of several members of TV’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” as well as at a number of New York Fashion Week shows such as those of Marc Jacobs and LaQuan Smith. “Women who wore perms for years wanted to be natural and felt as though they couldn’t because of work and how people would react.”
Celebrity hairstylist Edward Harvey has witnessed an 85% jump in clients wearing natural hairstyles since the CROWN Act passed in Maryland.
“Ethnic women from all cultures have began to embrace their curls before it was frowned upon in the workplace or deemed as unprofessional,” said Harvey, a Baltimore resident who is a key hairstylist for OCTET Productions in Washington, D.C. His clients have included rapper Remy Ma; comedian and actress Sherri Shepherd; and actress Victoria Rowell. “Men and women have began to lock their [hair] and wear trendy ethnic hairstyles such as coils, faux locks, box braided bobs, bantu knots, big puffs and lots of buns.”
Hotel Revival in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood recently added protective silk bonnets and pillowcases to their gift shop in an effort to better serve guests with natural hairstyles. The hotel announced the debut of the products earlier this month by linking them to the CROWN Act.
“My colleagues at Revival have experienced hair discrimination for themselves, and we’re fed up with fellow hoteliers leaving Black travelers behind,” said Jason Bass, the hotel’s director of culture and impact. Bass oversaw the addition of the brand to the property. “Super Silky Bonnets and Pillowcases are tailored to community members who rely on these essentials to protect and preserve their natural hair.”
In Washington, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, last year reintroduced a bill to ban discrimination based on hair textures and hairstyles commonly associated with a particular race or national origin. But Smith believes it will only pass in the U.S. Senate if Democrats capture a clear majority.
“I think it should be the law of the land. It shouldn’t be this piecemeal protection,” Smith said. “I want to be optimistic, but let’s be real.”
Maryland is now among at least 18 states that have approved a version of the CROWN Act. But debates over hairstyles continue in other states. Lawsuits have been filed against Texas school districts over hair and grooming policies, including in one district where two Black teens were told to cut their dreadlocks or face in-school suspensions. The ACLU of Texas estimated last year that there were “outdated and unconstitutional dress codes” at close to 500 of the more than 1,200 school districts in the state, according to the Texas Tribune.
Black people who believe that they have been discriminated against because of their hairstyle can file a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. In Baltimore City, they can contact the Community Relations Commission in the Office of Equity and Civil Rights.