Story by Michelle Tyrene Johnson
Emily Brown runs a non-profit in the Kansas City area. She is a black woman who wears her hair naturally. In 2016, she was invited to speak at a national conference, but one of the board members pulled her aside.
“You know, I think you’re smart," Brown told the story recently on KCUR's Central Standard. "But I’m concerned, you know, that people in the room may not fully hear you because of your hair. You should consider straightening your hair, you know, before you take this trip.”
The invitation to speak was a big deal, Brown said, and this board member made her doubt herself.
“It really made me think twice on my decision to wear my hair natural,” Brown said. “Are people not listening to me here in rooms in Kansas City because of this hair?”
In Kansas, this question could be a legal issue. Earlier this year, Kansas Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau introduced Senate Bill 250 — also known as the CROWN Act — which would amend the definition of race in state law to cover “hair texture and protective hairstyles.” CROWN stands for Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair.
California was the first state to pass a similar law, followed by New York and New Jersey.
The bill primarily addresses discrimination in schools and the workplace against African Americans hairstyles such as dreadlocks, braids, weaves, twists and naturals.
Michele Watley, the founder of an advocacy organization for black women called Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, was among those who testified before the Senate's Federal and State Affairs Committee in support of the bill.
“It’s an important issue here in the Midwest, for black women across the region," Watley said. "Regardless of their political affiliations, economic status, education level, we’ve all dealt with this issue at one point in our lives or another."
Watley pointed out that Chiefs player Patrick Mahomes is well known for his textured, curly hair. But Mahomes, who is biracial with a black father, might have a different response if he worked in Kansas as something other than a Superbowl hero.
“If Patrick Mahomes worked in certain work spaces or went to certain schools, he might find that he had to straighten or cut his hair in order to graduate, in order to attend school, in order to keep his job,” Watley said.
Straightening black hair, and keeping it straight, is neither simple nor inexpensive, Watley said. Chemical relaxers, a common alternative to straightening hair, can be damaging to the hair itself. Studies show they are linked to other health problems, such as cancer.
“The undue burden and physical harm and risk is, far outweighs trying to adhere to a Eurocentric standard of beauty that we can not naturally meet and is narrow,” Watley said.
At the statehouse hearing on the act, others agreed with Watley's position, including Kenya Cox, executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission.
“We had no idea of how many women would contact us, how many stories we would read about on Facebook and how many individuals were suffering in silence,” Cox told the committee.
The Kansas Chamber of Commerce, in a written statement to the committee obtained by the Associated Press, said that such a law could affect an employer’s ability to enforce a dress code or even comply with some safety standards.
Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Republican from Galena, said he supports the bill but is concerned about whether there is enough clarity on what is considered a historically cultural hairstyle if individuals from other groups raise the issue.
“Who decides what that is?” Hilderbrand asked.
Leah Fliter, the advocacy and outreach specialist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the organization is neutral on the proposed bill. However, Fliter said, the concern is that if you spell out what can’t be discriminated against, it could possibly open the door to more discrimination.
“If I can’t discriminate against someone based on hair styles or what color T-shirts they are wearing, then I can discriminate against them based on other things," Fliter said.
The bill has not yet moved out of committee. Twenty-two other states are also considering passing similar legislation, including Missouri.
Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter at KCUR 89.3 and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Kansas City, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon.