It’s not just hair: New Orleans CROWN Act is a first for the deep south but, advocates hope, just the beginning

New Orleans attorney Nia Weeks remembers the concerned comments she received from older Black women when she decided to grow locs three years ago. 

“You can’t go into a court with locs. No one’s gonna hire you,” they told her.

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At its last meeting in 2020, New Orleans City Council made a move to address those worries when it passed the C.R.O.W.N. Act Ordinance, which prohibits race-based hair discrimination, including the denial of employment and housing because of hair texture or protective hairstyles like braids, dreadlocks and bantu knots. 

The C.R.O.W.N. Study, by cosmetic company Dove, revealed Black women are 80 percent more likely to change their hair to fit social norms and workplace expectations. Those changes often include straightening their hair with extreme heat or harsh chemical relaxers. 

Denise Lawrence does the hair of client Danielle Robinson at NolaBraider Natural Hair Salon in Mid City, New Orleans. (Phoebe Jones/WWNO)
Hear from Danielle Robinson.

C.R.O.W.N. is an acronym for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.

While Birmingham passed a resolution to recognize July 3 as National C.R.O.W.N. Day last summer, New Orleans was the first municipality in the Deep South to adopt a C.R.O.W.N. Act. 

The ordinance was a victory for Weeks, who is founder and executive director of Citizen SHE United, which advocates for policies that address the needs of Black women across Louisiana. She also encouraged City Council President Helena Moreno to introduce the measure. 

“It was the best Christmas present that I could have even thought of giving to Black women. It was a love letter and a thank you in action,” Weeks said. “Black women are not a monolith, but our hair and the experiences, the prejudice that we experience, is a unified issue, regardless of age, demographics, geography [and] socioeconomic status.”

Weeks hosted a presentation that illustrated the ways that Black women are discriminated against based on their hair for City Council’s Community Development Committee on Dec. 8.

One of the presentation’s speakers, Doris “Wendy” Greene, is a law professor at Drexel University and helped draft C.R.O.W.N. Acts on the federal level and around the country. Greene’s publications also played an essential role the creation of the groundbreaking enforcement guidance in New York City and California — the first municipality and the first state to adopt policy and legislation that clarify natural hair discrimination is race discrimination.

“I think it will definitely help people to start to rethink and even change their perceptions, especially if they have negative perceptions as it relates to natural hair,”  Greene said.

“It really makes people aware of the systematic nature of the discrimination as well as its harms.”

Charlie Lawrence does the hair of her client Shayla Burney at NolaBraider Natural Hair Salon in Mid City, New Orleans. (Phoebe Jones/WWNO)

It’s Not Just Hair 

Weeks said every Black woman she knows has experienced hair discrimination. When she was a student at Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, her white classmates poured water on her head because they wanted to see her freshly straightened hair kink back up. 

Her youngest daughter Cameron, 13, has had similar negative experiences in school. A chemical relaxer to straighten her hair damaged her scalp and left her with a bald spot, which she was teased for. As her naturally curly afro grew back, children would throw leaves in her hair. She eventually grew locs and started to pin it up in different styles. Curiosity over her hair forced Weeks to have many uncomfortable conversations. 

“I’m having to have discussions with teachers at the beginning of the year [that are] not about academics, but [to say] ‘Do not let other people touch my children’s hair. Do not touch my children’s hair. Do not make them explain their culture and their hair to everybody because it is literally not the position they want to be in.’ They just want to come to school to learn. Having to have those conversations constantly is exhausting,” Weeks said. 

Jada Cotright, Office Manager and Track Coach at Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans. (Phoebe Jones/WWNO)

Weeks and Greene spoke of the dichotomy of love surrounding the rituals associated with styling and caring for Black hair — children sitting between the knees of their mothers, grandmothers or aunties as they get their naturally tightly coiled hair braided into cornrows, the tight pull against a tender head, the cooling touch of hair grease rubbed onto the exposed scalp — and the anxiety of having their appearances policed by society and sometimes by people in their own communities.

“As a child, I absolutely felt that kinship [in] those very personal and memorable moments of getting my braids or getting my afro-puffs. … Those are the times when I did feel [like] my most authentic self — really very pretty and beautiful and empowered,” Greene said. 

But as she grew up she felt pressure to use chemical relaxers to straighten her hair. 

“It was definitely communicated to me, if I were to straighten my hair that that would be perceived as being the kind of hairstyle that I should wear to be fully included or to at least minimize some level of discrimination or stigmatization,” Greene said. “And there is that interesting space where you might conform to that and there can be some sadness in that because you are having to suppress a very fundamental part of your identity.”

Weeks remembers her mother, who died five years ago, braiding her hair before sending her to school in the mornings and brushing it at night. 

“Every single night my mama brushed my hair, even into adulthood. And there was something about my mom saying, ‘Go get the brush; go get the comb’,” Weeks said through tears. “[Now] my kids will do something with my scalp every night. Because sometimes it’s the only way I can go to sleep. … The relationship between Black moms and their Black children’s hair is sacred.” 

Hear from Nia Weeks.
Hear from Peyton and Cameron.

Those memories are paired with painful ones, like her experiences with her classmates at Sacred Heart, who would also call her names based on her hair. 

When she started practicing law in Chicago, she said, the comments came again, this time from other Black women attorneys.

“I remember being told, ‘Don’t let your curls show, because it can negatively impact the way the judges and the jury see you, and that impacts your client,” Weeks said. 

Those women were communicating their stories of how hair discrimination affected their ability to do their work, remain employed, and in turn care for their families. 

Her 16-year-old daughter, Peyton, learned how to braid her own hair by watching tutorials on YouTube and loves to add a pop of color to her braids. She recently braided blue extensions into her hair.

“She said, ‘They can’t say nothing about my blue hair because — C.R.O.W.N. Act!” Weeks laughed. 

Lester Pierce displays his braids outside of his home in New Orleans. (Phoebe Jones/WWNO)

Hear from Lester Pierce.

A History Of Policing Black Hair In The Deep South

At about 38 and 32 percent respectively, the Black populations in Mississippi and Louisiana make up a larger proportion of the population than in any other state. (This does not include the District of Columbia, where Black people make up 47 percent of the population.) Still, race-based hair discrimination persists in these states, creating barriers to employment and education and to freedoms that others take for granted. 

Mississippi-based TV reporter Brittany Noble said she was fired from her job after she started appearing on camera in her natural curls and protective styles like twists instead of the straightened hair and wigs she had been wearing for years. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has agreed to take her case to federal court in 2022.  

In a 2006 TV interview, Rodney “Jack” Strain, the former and now disgraced sheriff for St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana, essentially said deputies would target people with “dreadlocks and chee wee hairstyles.” In 2018 a Slidell woman filed a lawsuit against her employer, LA Fitness, after her manager texted her saying that her natural hair “didn’t meet LA Fitness standards in a fro.” That same year an 11-year-old girl Black girl was sent home from her private Catholic school in Terrytown for wearing braids with hair extensions, a common protective style, after the school changed its grooming policy. This April the Southern Poverty Law Center highlighted the case of a 15-year-old boy who did not apply to his father’s alma mater, St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, despite wanting to play in the marching band, because the school’s grooming policy bans dreadlocks. 

Hear from Miranda Kipper.
Hear from Amber Ward.

The C.R.O.W.N. Act has historical significance in the Pelican State. While Louisiana was a Spanish colony, Gov. Esteban Rodriguez Miro passed a law in 1786 that ordered African descendant women, particularly free Black women, to wear large cloths, called tignons, wrapped around their hair to signify that they belonged to a lower station. 

“The idea was that it would make them seem or appear less attractive than white women,” Greene said. 

The law backfired when the head wraps, many of which were ornate and brightly colored, became a fashion statement. 

“This edict was trying to suppress, trying to mark [them] as being socially, politically and legally inferior. It actually did the exact opposite,” Greene said. “It amplified even more their beauty, empowerment, agency and individuality in ways which were not expected.”

Greene said it could take a long time for cultural prejudices against natural and protective hairstyles to shift. 

“It took almost, you know, 300-plus years for us to be able to really exercise some greater levels of freedom and citizenship in this country, meaning African descendants,” Greene said. “It may take some decades, if not centuries, for us to really be able to deconstruct a norm that has been privileging eurocentrism and whiteness in so many different spaces.”

Until then the C.R.O.W.N. Act provides a legal avenue for anyone who has experienced race-based hair discrimination to seek redress.  

The legislation is in part rooted in an Alabama case from 2010. A Black woman, Chastity Jones, interviewed for a job at Catastrophe Management Systems. Upon being offered the job, Jones was asked to cut the locs that she had been growing for several years. She refused and the job offer was rescinded.   

The EEOC took the case to federal court and Catastrophe Management Systems won. The judges ruled that afros are considered immutable characteristics of Blackness and are protected under federal civil rights laws but because locs, braids, twists and bantu knots are considered mutable characteristics, they are not covered. 

Greene calls the ruling a “hair-splitting legal distinction.” 

“The idea that an afro is a is an immutable characteristic of Blackness to me signifies this misunderstanding about Blackness, which is that all Black people have afros or that only Black people are born with afros. Right? And we know that’s not true,” Greene said. “It’s based upon this widely accepted fictional idea that race is a biological construct.”

Denise Lawrence does the hair of client Danielle Robinson at NolaBraider Natural Hair Salon in Mid City, New Orleans.

The State of the C.R.O.W.N. Act In the Deep South 

A coalition of Black women in Alabama, including a Birmingham City Council member, are pushing for state legislators to introduce a C.R.O.W.N. Act in the 2021 legislative session, which begins in early February.  C.R.O.W.N. Acts were introduced in the 2020 legislative sessions for Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, but no bills were passed.

Weeks is seeking adoption of C.R.O.W.N. Acts in other Louisiana cities and eventually at the state level. 

“Every state, every municipality needs it because racism and sexism and bigotry exist in every piece of framework of this country,” Weeks said. 

Weeks said that she has already begun to see cultural shifts in reaction to her sharing her own stories of discrimination on the City Council floor. 

In response to a news story that noted the bullying Weeks experienced in school, the women who poured water on her head and made derogatory statements when they were students at Sacred Heart called her to apologize. They also donated to Citizen SHE.  

Kendra Jarrell, a Curly Hair Specialist at Ringletts Salon in Downtown New Orleans. (Phoebe Jones/WWNO)

“When Black Women Win, Everybody Wins” 

Weeks and Greene have said that in advocating for race-based hair protections, centering Black women who appear to have been affected most negatively by hair-discrimination was intentional. 

“There’s a reality that so many policies that are about a specific group actually leave out Black women,” Weeks said. 

She referenced efforts toward equal pay that empower women who can negotiate for higher salaries but exclude shift workers and people who are paid by the hour, earning minimum wage. 

One reason Black women get excluded, Weeks said, is because there aren’t many in legislative positions. She noted that there are no Black women on the New Orleans City Council, which may be why the city’s C.R.O.W.N. Act was not passed sooner. 

Hear from Dwana Makeba.
Hear from Mindy Hobley.
Hear from Nnecka Meka.
Hear from Morgan Taylor.

In the council meeting when Moreno first introduced the C.R.O.W.N. Act and when Weeks and others shared their experiences with hair discrimination, Councilmember Kristen Gisleson Palmer said that she was not fully aware of the issue until watching the presentation. 

“A C.R.O.W.N. Act could have passed in New Orleans at any time,” Weeks said. “The issue is that everybody’s issues get pushed to the forefront [ahead of] Black women’s issues.” 

And although race-based discrimination affects Black women more than other groups, the C.R.O.W.N. Act protects anyone who’s hairstyles are associated closely with a racial group from discrimination. 

“It redefines race and constructs of race so other communities have an argument toward inclusivity. It just so happens that the equalization of treatment is being shaped by the very unique experiences of Black women and girls,” Weeks said. “When Black women win, everybody wins.” 

This story has been updated to clarify Doris “Wendy” Greene’s role in the creation of C.R.O.W.N. Act ordinances.