The Importance of the CROWN Act

AACF is glad to see the passage this legislative session of HB1576: To Establish The Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act.

We have all seen the stories on the news: Andrew, a Black boy was forced to have his locks cut in order to participate in a wrestling match; Diamond, a Black girl who is a powerlifter was told she would forfeit the state championship match if she didn’t remove beads from her hair; J.T. a young Black boy had school staffers color on his head with Sharpie marker or face in-school suspension; Asia was a Black high school cheerleader in her senior year when she was removed from the team because her hair could not easily be styled in the same way as non-Black cheerleaders’ hair could.

But this bill is not about anecdotal stories. This bill will have positive impacts on Black children in Arkansas because it will make it so that schools can be a safe place for Black children where they know they will not be targeted for the way their hair grows out of their heads. 

In addition, this bill will personally impact me as a Black woman and a mother of a 5-year-old Black son. I can remember growing up as a child, always wanting to conform my appearance to the standard norms of what beauty and beautiful hair looked like. That image of perfect hair was not the hair that grew from my head. I remember being made fun of for my kinky hair texture and wanting my hair to be straight like the models in magazines, and the other girls in my predominantly White classrooms. Unfortunately, in my attempt to assimilate to American beauty standards, I caused a lot of damage to my own hair over the years. I felt my hair wasn’t beautiful enough or professional enough — a message that society has taught Black women and men like myself throughout the country. If I am truly being honest, I wear a wig most days because I want to be taken seriously. I want others to see me as the professional that I have proven myself to be through my personal experiences, education, and work history, and I don’t believe that would be the case if I was wearing my natural hair. 

This bill is important for my son and other Black children in the state because we have seen through the various cases I mentioned that hairstyles can be discriminated against in the school system and athletic settings. My 5-year-old son is actively involved in baseball, soccer, and basketball, and looking forward to participating in jiu-jitsu. I can’t bear to think of him deciding to grow out his own natural hair and being told by the school or athletic officials that he can’t participate in classes, activities, or athletics due to the hair growing naturally out of his scalp. I want my son to be proud of his natural hair, to choose to wear his hair in whatever hairstyle he feels best in and to know that he shouldn’t be judged for it. I want every Black child in this state to know that they are perfect the way they were created and born. 

Unfortunately, Black children are taught from a young age that their natural hair is not normal or “professional.” Many schools in our state, whether public, charter, or private, have policies that may be explicit about hair discrimination: for example “no braids,” or implicit, such as “extreme hairstyles are not permitted.” And what makes a hairstyle extreme? It is the discretionary decision of the school staff. These decisions are often made by administrators who do not look like the students they are punishing and who lack awareness of the impact these discretionary disciplinary actions can have on students in the long term. The impact of hair discrimination causes students to lose school time; to face humiliation, shame and depression; and to have affirmed the idea that they don’t belong.  

Underlying this regressive movement to criminalize Black children’s natural and protective hairstyles is the idea that we are preparing them for the “real world.” Instead we are teaching them that school is not a safe place for them and that they must change themselves to be a part of society. These discretionary punishments have a disproportionate effect on Black students. They are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, and these discretionary decisions, particularly related to Black hairstyles, are shameful and disproportionately applied. 

Punitive school disciplinary practices such as expulsions and out-of-school suspensions keep kids out of school. Kids can’t learn if they are not in the classroom. Unnecessarily harsh, discriminatory, or unhelpful discipline, especially as related to Black students’ natural hair, causes kids to be more likely to drop out of school and end up in the juvenile justice system, a trend commonly known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” 

Black students are more likely than all other racial groups to receive exclusionary discipline, including out-of-school suspension and expulsion for discretionary reasons such as dress code and hair violations. For example, over the last two academic years in Arkansas, 21% of all infractions reported for Black students resulted in exclusionary discipline, which is much higher compared to other racial groups. 

Every Arkansas child, no matter their race, background, or where they live, deserves to have the opportunity to excel in school. I think we can agree that children facing discrimination and discipline because of their natural hair are not being given a fair chance to no succeed. The CROWN Act will prevent punitive measures against Black children based simply on how their natural hair is. Our hope is for a new generation of students to grow up knowing that they don’t have to change themselves to fit in.