Alexander: Protect Black Hairstyles


Emily Rincon

Akilah Woodford-Sims braiding Latesia’s hair at Beyond Braids in Salt Lake City on Feb. 10, 2021 (Photo by Emily Rincon | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By CJ Alexander, Special Projects Managing Editor


We are only one week into Black History Month, and Black excellence is already under attack. Across the country, bomb threats have terrorized historically Black colleges and universities, while the University of Utah’s Black Cultural Center faced threats back in January. Threats like these are nothing new, as America has a long and violent history of trying to suppress Black education and achievement. But we’ve had enough of racist white people challenging our right to pursue our ambitions and exist authentically. Black identity deserves acceptance.

Luckily, Utah is moving in the right direction towards accepting Black identity in the form of S.B. 117, sponsored by Sen. Derek Kitchen. Like California’s CROWN Act, S.B. 117 amends Utah’s Antidiscrimination Act to provide protection for Black hairstyles in areas like employment, school and court. Hairstyles like Afros, curls, braids, dreadlocks and twists, which are considered “protective hairstyles” for Black hair are protected. These hairstyles are often deemed “unprofessional” and can be discriminated against. Crafting standards of professionalism and beauty to exclude Black hair is racist, and without proper legislation to protect Black hair, white people will continue to reject Black identity. I support the passage of Sen. Kitchen’s bill to protect Black hair, and every Utah legislator should too.

Utah originally passed its Antidiscrimination Act following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Since then, the act has been modified a great deal, including the passage of the landmark LGBT Rights Bill in 2015. However, even after 58 years, Black hair is still not included in Utah’s Antidiscrimination Act and therefore is subjected to legal discrimination in multiple areas of the state. Sen. Kitchen got the idea to write this bill when his constituents noticed other states’ legislation to protect Black hair. Kitchen explained, “The point of the bill is to protect people from losing their jobs because of something they can’t control. I’m working on this with people I represent in the community who have been concerned about the way Black and Brown people have been treated in the community.”

When Kitchen introduced the bill in last year’s General Session, several Republican lawmakers voiced their opposition and voted against it, claiming they “did not see the need for such legislation.” One even went so far as to make ignorant remarks towards the few Black women who testified on behalf of the bill. But this year, S.B. 117 is back, consistent with Utah State Code, and on its way to the Senate Business and Labor Committee’s agenda.

For Black men and women, legislation like S.B. 117 and the CROWN Act prove the importance of ending hair-based discrimination. In many workplace settings, Black men and women are expected to “dress the part” to stay employed, meaning they must conform to Eurocentric and white beauty standards. Those who sport natural hair or protective hairstyles face microaggressions in the workplace and may be denied jobs.

One Black woman on campus — who has been granted anonymity by The Daily Utah Chronicle due to her safety concerns after a recent bomb threat targeting the U’s Black Cultural Center — said that her dreams of working in environmental justice were dashed when she couldn’t find a job application that did not prohibit her hairstyle. “To me, this felt really unfair because I didn’t have alternative hair options in a way that maybe other women did. [Dreadlocks] was the easiest way of maintaining the health of my hair that didn’t involve things like using chemicals or heat to straighten it.” These restrictions on Black hair forced her to switch careers entirely. “I wasn’t willing to bow down to those standards.”

Race-based hair discrimination also affects students. Last year, a high school softball umpire forced a Black student-athlete to cut off the beads in her box braids in the middle of a game. The same thing happened in 2019 when a white referee told then 16-year-old Andrew Johnson to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his wrestling match. Some school districts even ban specific Black hairstyles, which prevents students from attending events like prom and graduation. Black people should never have to suppress their identity and conform to white beauty standards just to continue existing.

Discrimination against Black hairstyles is not new and will continue until legislation like S.B. 117 passes in Utah. The bill recognizes and combats the discrimination Black people face regarding their natural hair or the way they choose to wear it. Any legislator who opposes the bill or votes against it supports discrimination against Black hairstyles. Lawmakers who believe there’s no need for legislation like S.B. 117 deny the valid emotion and discrimination experiences of Black people. By claiming to “not-see-color,” white lawmakers delude themselves as “not racist” simply because they don’t engage in hate crimes or are active members of the nearest KKK chapter. But racism comes in many forms and failing to support S.B. 117 is a form of racism.

We desperately need S.B. 117 and the CROWN Act to protect and ensure Black hair is accepted and welcome. Discouraging Black people from being authentic and true to their own selves sends a clear message: “Black is not professional, nor is it beautiful.” We need to fight this message with our own.

I applaud Sen. Kitchen’s initiative. His bill gives me hope. But until the Utah Legislature and the rest of Utah accept Black hair, we cannot move forward to stop hair-based discrimination. S.B. 117 is the step we need towards reducing that discrimination. And it’s up to our legislators to make that happen by voting in favor of the bill.


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