by Alondra De Leon
In an evolving workplace environment where many organizations promote inclusion by encouraging individuals to be their authentic selves, what happens when your authentic self pushes against existing norms of what is traditionally considered professional? Individuals from historically marginalized groups often ponder how much of themselves to bring, in order to avoid stereotypes that might hinder opportunities.
This is the center of a law recently adopted in the state of Connecticut called The CROWN Act. It stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair, which prohibits discrimination against natural hair styles such as afros, twists, dreadlocks, and the like. In a work environment modeled after Eurocentric, male-oriented aesthetics, this policy seeks to relieve the social pressure to conform with these standards of professionalism as it relates to wearing natural hair to work. The law also seeks to alleviate fears of potential penalties associated with it.
Many people wonder why this law is necessary and how likely it really is for employers to discriminate against people who wear their natural hair. I have both witnessed with others and experienced firsthand the pressure of not wanting to take the chance of being stereotyped based on natural hair. I have strategically chosen to wear my hair straight on some occasions to avoid adding any more layers of potential disadvantage to my image. But, how can a law help overcome this perceived disadvantage?
Even though I would wear my curls daily, I would straighten my hair whenever taking professional photos or attending an important social or professional event. I felt it was the best professional look for a young woman of color. Altering a part of my identity, and doing it as part of the perpetual ritual, was common practice in a culture where natural hair texture could tap into implicit bias. These feelings are common occurrences amongst Black, African American and people of African descent. The stories of folks cutting their dreads, or relaxing or straightening their hair for job interviews or prior to important meetings, are as common as buying a new suit. Conforming with grooming and professional standards, as defined by a culture that does not actively and massively see African hair textures represented, seems like a necessary tactic. The message that lack of representation sends, coupled with the experiences of micro-aggressions based on hair, influences these decisions to conform.
The role that policies such as The CROWN Act play in defining what is acceptable, influencing decisions for both employers and employees, can be powerful. When I first learned about the act from other friends in the construction industry, there was a collective sigh of relief and a feeling of hope for a future where we continue to openly show ourselves as we are, without penalties. If we believe that policy influences culture, then we must agree that The CROWN Act can provide freedom and relief to more people of color to return to their roots and be empowered to bring their authentic selves to work, thereby actively redefining what professionalism looks like from a lens of inclusion that considers African hair acceptable.
As a proud owner of a big crown of curly hair who has found freedom and empowerment to carry myself in this male, Caucasian-dominant industry, I am hopeful more of us can find comfort in also wearing our beautiful crowns naturally and without fear of repercussions.
Alondra De Leon is a project manager with Gilbane Building Company.