Katie Hobbs signs executive order prohibiting hair discrimination

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs signed an executive order on March 17 prohibiting discrimination within state agencies and new state contracts based on the texture and appearance of an individual’s hair. This includes braids, locs, twists, knots, headwraps and all other protective and racially significant hairstyles.  

The order was inspired by the CROWN Act, a California law passed in 2019 offering the first United States protection against hair discrimination. A federal implementation of the CROWN Act failed to pass in the Senate in 2022, yet 20 U.S. states and multiple cities, including Tempe and Tucson, have implemented versions of the act in recent years.

While hair-based discrimination has been a prominent issue for decades, the executive order cites statistics from the 2023 CROWN Workplace Research Study as the driving factor of its creation. The study found approximately two-thirds of Black women change their natural hair for job interviews.

By signing this order, Hobbs said she wanted to ensure Arizonans could wear their natural hair in workplaces without fear of being perceived as unprofessional. 

“For far too long, Black women, men and children have been deprived of educational and employment opportunities for wearing their natural hair,” Hobbs said in a press release

During the signing, Hobbs was joined by Neal Lester, the founding director of the ASU Project Humanities initiative focused on fostering critical conversations about identity and social justice. 

With upwards of 30 years of experience lecturing on hair discrimination, Lester said he was included in the order’s development to ensure the accuracy and gender-neutral nature of its terminology. This way, Lester said, the order acknowledges hair-based discrimination affects people of color regardless of gender identity. 

While statistics surrounding the number of Black women experiencing hair discrimination are included within the order, Lester said focus should be placed on the individuals negatively impacted by hair discrimination over the quantity of discrimination occurrences.

“I don’t think this has to be an issue of how many cases there have been,” Lester said. “It’s any one case that is somehow presuming the nature of one’s hair or how one styles it impacts how they are as a student, teacher or anything else that is the problem.” 

Hobbs also acknowledged the work of many Black women’s rights organizations, including the Phoenix Chapter of The National Coalition of 100 Black Women (NCBW) and the Black Mother’s Forum, as crucial in developing the executive order. This includes an open letter and petition sent by the NCBW encouraging legislative action recognizing hair discrimination. 

Beverely Elliott, the executive director and co-founder of the African American Museum of Southern Arizona, was one of those recognized. She said the museum used its website and newsletters to provide avenues for young voters to reach out to Hobbs directly about the importance of protecting hair rights.    

“It's crucial that we continue to elevate this work and bring it to higher-ups so we can end race-based hair discrimination,” Elliott said. “We’re extremely grateful to Governor Hobbs and her cabinet for recognizing the need to address this social justice issue.” 

While this order is a prominent step toward recognizing the severity of hair discrimination, Lester said there is more to be done to ensure hair rights are protected for Arizonans. 

For instance, the order limits hair discrimination prohibition to state agencies and, as such, does not include entities like state universities, public corporations and private employers in its protections. The order encourages institutions not included in these parameters to adopt similar methods of employee protection, yet it is not guaranteed these organizations will formulate similar restrictions.

“I really am hoping that people who are in higher places like managers, directors and vice presidents will stand up and protect how we want to wear our hair,” Elliott said. “They’re the ones who have to adopt it because, otherwise, we have to pull up the CROWN Act to protect ourselves. We shouldn’t have to do that.”

Lester also said the amount of negative backlash the order has received from white individuals questioning if hair discrimination is present has been particularly disheartening. 

For real change to occur, Lester said, individuals not directly affected by hair discrimination must gain an understanding of the issue’s widespread nature as well as greater empathy. 

“People are either not getting it or they are denying it,” Lester said. “These are the people who have never had their child sent home because of the texture or style of their hair. There is a lot of education that needs to happen about why this is an issue and how it impacts people every day.”

The order directs the Department of Administration to establish procedures ensuring employment opportunity protections by June 1. In the meantime, CROWN Coalition officials said they will continue to fight for nationwide and worldwide protection from hair discrimination. 

More information on hair-centric racial discrimination and the future of protective legislation can be found on the CROWN Act website, Instagram or Twitter.

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