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Bill seeks to offer protection from discrimination for hairstyle on the job

Shelly Smith braids hair at her salon, Braid Heaven, in this Jan. 28, 2020 file photo.
Charlie Riedel
Shelly Smith braids hair at her salon, Braid Heaven, in this Jan. 28, 2020 file photo.

New Hampshire legislators are considering a bill that seeks to protect Granite Staters against discrimination based on hairstyles associated with different races or ethnic groups.

Rep. Jonah Wheeler, who sponsored the bill, told members of the House Judiciary Committee this week that discrimination based on people’s hairstyle is a problem in New Hampshire.

He said, years ago, he suspects a restaurant manager in Peterborough fired him because of his locs. While the bill is aimed at addressing challenges faced mainly by the state’s BIPOC community, Wheeler said it can offer protection to people from other racial backgrounds too.

“People in the state are facing [discrimination] at school and work,” he said. “And not all are African people.”

Wheeler is calling his bill the CROWN Act(Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), legislation that has been adopted by 24 states prohibiting race-based hair discrimination. Recently, the suspension of a Black Texas student for his hairstyle, despite that state having a CROWN Act, sparked a lawsuit by the student's family.

The Vermont House of Representatives approved a similar bill this Friday.

According to the Crown Act Coalition, 53% of Black mothers say their daughters have experienced racial discrimination based on hairstyles as early as 5 years old, and 80% were likely to change their natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work.

The bill aims to amend New Hampshire’s current anti-discrimination law, which already has a clause prohibiting discrimination by race and color. That portion of the law includes hair texture and protective hairstyles such as braids, locs, tight coils or curls, cornrows, Bantu knots, Afros, twists, and headwraps.

The new proposal would add a clause related exclusively to employment, opening the door to victims of discrimination based on wearing a protective hairstyle to file a private cause of action that could justify suing for money or property. The claim will have to be filed with the Department of Labor instead of going to the New Hampshire Human Rights Commision.

Readhere how to file a complaint and file mediators for charges of discrimination in New Hampshire under current law

But Ahni Malachi, executive director of the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission, said she is worried about how the bill has been drafted.

“It is removing the commission from the process,” she said.

Malachi said that by taking jurisdiction from her agency, it won’t be able to provide guidance and assistance to victims.

“People would have to go to court versus coming to us,” she said. “[The bill also] leaves out other types of hairs which could make people not file a charge.”

Wheeler, the bill’s main sponsor, told NHPR there is some confusion about the language.

“[The jurisdiction is] still there,” he said, “We are committed to working with them.”

Shaquwan’Da Allen, owner of Rootz Natural Hair Shop in Manchester, testified this Wednesday in favor of the bill. She helps nurses, teachers, construction workers, and people in the Army to honor and love their natural hair. She said protective hairstyles allow many to have a clean presence and not risk shedding hair in places like hospitals or restaurants, where sanitation is a priority.

“They have to pull their hair up so their bosses don’t complain,” she said. “I allow them to follow the rules of uniform.”

Allen thinks a lot more education around the BIPOC community's hair is needed. Her boyfriend Anthony Harris, a community advocate, has the same opinion. But he said while many people are vulnerable to not getting employment or losing it for wearing these hairstyles, there is much more to consider.

“These are the protective styles that we need for our hair to grow and be healthy, so without being able to do that the only option we have is a low cut,” he said. “That is not a look we all feel confident with.”

Gabriela Lozada is a Report for America corps member. Her focus is on Latinx community with original reporting done in Spanish for ¿Qué hay de Nuevo NH?.

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