OLYMPIA – An employer couldn’t fire or refuse to hire someone because they have an Afro, braids, dreadlocks or twists, under a bill being considered by the House.
Courts still consider such black hairstyles to be a characteristic that can be changed, ignoring the historical and cultural context, said bill sponsor Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland.
“We have suffered too long in regards to our hair,” said Morgan, who is black. “We’re not defined by our hair.”
The bill would amend the Washington Law Against Discrimination so the definition of race protects certain hair textures and styles. Under the amended Washington law, such discrimination would not be allowed in jobs, public spaces, housing, insurance or credit applications.
Black women have had to assimilate into white culture through the use of hair relaxer, which can be unhealthy and dangerous for skin, Morgan said.
Dreadlocks can be an expression of spiritual conviction, a symbol of ethnic pride, a political statement or a fashion statement, she said.
Rashelle Davis told the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee Tuesday that well-meaning people have told her she needs to straighten her hair to be considered more professional.
“I understand that when people say it needs to be more professional, that means it needs to be more white,” she said. “I strongly disagree, and I believe that black hair is professional.”
Michelle Merriweather, president and CEO of the Seattle Urban League, said black women have always had to conform to spaces not originally made for them.
“We are in the year 2020 and we still have to explain our hair, our race,” she said. “It is time we say that this is not OK, discrimination of any kind is wrong.”
Washington needs to tell its residents, especially children, they can show up and be who they are entirely, she said.
“Our hair is literally a crown that tells a story – a story of struggle, triumph, pain, pride and comfort,” Merriweather said.
Morgan cited an incident that took place in New Jersey, where a high school wrestler was told to cut his dreads by a referee if he wanted to participate in the match. Currently, only California, New York and New Jersey offer protection against discrimination based on hairstyles.
The bill would also cover other communities of color, including Native Americans and Samoans who honor long hair, Morgan said.
Sharon Ortiz, Washington State Human Rights Commission executive director, spoke about the generational trauma boarding schools caused Native American children who were forced to cut their hair and were not allowed to speak their language.
“This has left trauma that is still with Native people today,” she said.
The bill would help correct racial injustices by making hair discrimination illegal, said T’Wina Nobles, CEO and president of the Tacoma Urban League, which aims to empower African Americans and other minorities.
“We want to see a world where we all are valued for who we are, a world where every man, woman, child is free to express their individuality without concern of being judged or held back by their appearance,” Nobles said.
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