Tacoma area legislator has it right: Stop policing and judging black people’s hair

No doubt Washington state Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, was cheering Sunday night when the heart-warming tale “Hair Love” won the Oscar for best animated short film.

The seven-minute cartoon chronicles the struggles of a black father trying to style his young daughter’s hair for the first time. The film, using every color in the crayon box, reminds viewers how hair, specifically black hair, is rooted in identity, cultural pride and most of all love.

We’re happy to report there’s some hair love happening in Olympia. Morgan, together with 35 other lawmakers, put House Bill 2602 on the docket. The proposal would amend the Washington Law Against Discrimination to include certain hair textures and styles.

It’s a shame we have to put a common-sense conclusion like this in statute, but as reports of race-based hair discrimination surface across the country, we’re glad a Pierce County legislator has brought the issue to light.

Morgan, who is African American, gave a moving testimony before the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee, saying that stories of discrimination prompted her to sponsor the bill. She cited the shocking incident in 2018 when a 16-year old New Jersey wrestler was forced by a referee to submit to a mat-side haircut or forfeit his match.

More recently, a teenager in Texas was told he had to cut off his locks if he wanted to walk in his graduation ceremony this year.

Denying people the chance for opportunity or advancement because of a hairstyle is racism; it’s rooted in white standards of appearance, and it’s wrong.

Schools and businesses can set dress codes, but they go too far when they restrict hair or headware, both inextricably linked to culture and identity. The U.S. military has begun to recognize this right, as well, granting exemptions to Sikh service members (including an airman at JBLM) whose religion prescribes men to wear beards and unshorn hair under turbans. The military also rolled back its restrictions on black hairstyles a few years ago, Morgan pointed out.

Most of the time, hair discrimination is more insidious than blatant. It comes through code words like “neat,” “presentable” and “professional,” and it takes a disproportionate economic and health toll on black females.

In her testimony, Morgan referenced chemical burns endured by African American children in an effort to straighten their hair to “fit in.” The first-term legislator advocates that women of color embrace their Afro-textured hair rather than conform to Euro-centric ideas of attractiveness.

“Black hair is beautiful,” she told fellow representatives, adding, “We cannot let discrimination and injustice happen in our state.”

If passed, Washington will join a handful of states with a version of California’s “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” or CROWN Act.

But employers and schools needn’t wait for it to become law. They can revisit dress codes right now to make sure they don’t include hair restrictions. Braids, kinks and twists have nothing to do with character, competence or professionalism.

Adopting HB 2602 will bolster state law that protects people from discrimination against race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. It will bring Washington a step closer to ending intolerance based on how somebody looks. And given that February is Black History month, it would be a fitting tribute to have this bill signed into law before the month is over.

Bans or restrictions on natural hair have no place in the land of the free.

Washingtonians, repeat after us: “With liberty and hair love for all.”