Partner Deena R. Merlen Discusses the CROWN Act and Rooting Out Race-Based Hair Discrimination

The program on June 7, 2019, was titled, “The Secrets to Unleashing NextGen Talent.” The gorgeous hall at the Yale Club bristled with heavies from companies and organizations such as Facebook, Google, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Ernst & Young, Wells Fargo, SHRM and more.

Thasunda Brown Duckett was a riveting speaker. Aptly named ”Most Powerful Woman in Banking” by American Banker, Ms. Duckett, CEO of Chase Consumer Banking, oversees a banking network with more than $684B in deposits and investments, 5,300 branches, 18,000 ATMs and more than 47,000 employees – including 3,000 financial advisors – serving 23 million households nationwide. In May, when she starts her new gig as the CEO of TIAA, she will be the second Black woman currently leading a Fortune 500 company, and the fourth Black woman, ever, to serve as a Fortune 500 CEO.

“Time for two more questions,” said moderator Tyler Mathisen, co-anchor of CNBC’s “Power Lunch.” Two lucky women got to pose the final questions.

And what did they ask the Most Powerful Woman in Banking?

How to . . .  wear their hair.

A Caucasian man, without much hair at all, cracked a joke, but Ms. Duckett addressed their questions with all due seriousness, for it is indeed a serious matter. Workplace dress code policies, including with respect to hair, can have racially discriminatory impact and can perpetuate racism – and indeed they have, for far too many, for far too long.

In the roughly 21 months since that brief exchange at the Yale Club, the issue has gained traction nationally. Eight states and multiple cities have now enacted laws that prohibit race-based hair discrimination, including California, New York, New Jersey, Virginia (the first southern state to enact such a law), Colorado, Washington and Maryland.

As of March 4, 2021, Connecticut became the eighth state to ban hair discrimination with its enactment of the CROWN Act (which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”). As employers in Connecticut are racing to meet the April 19 deadline by which they must comply with Connecticut’s expanded sexual harassment prevention training requirements, this is an excellent time for employers to also review their workplace policies and ensure their employees’ rights under the CROWN Act are not violated.

Specifically, Connecticut’s anti-discrimination law, which prohibits discrimination based on race, now clarifies that the word “’Race’ is inclusive of ethnic traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles,” and it further clarifies that the term “’protective hairstyles’ includes, but is not limited to, wigs, headwraps and hairstyles such as individual braids, cornrows, locs, twists, Bantu knots, afros and afro puffs.”

As noted in the New York City Commission on Human Rights Legal Enforcement Guidance on Race Discrimination on the Basis of Hair:

There is a widespread and fundamentally racist belief that Black hairstyles are not suited for formal settings, and may be unhygienic, messy, disruptive, or unkempt. Indeed, white slave traders initially described African hair and locs as “dreadful,” which led to the commonly-used term “dreadlocks.” Black children and adults, from schools to places of employment, have routinely been targeted by discriminatory hair policies. . . .

Race discrimination based on hair and hairstyles most closely associated with Black people has caused significant physical and psychological harm to those who wish to maintain natural hair or specific hairstyles but are forced to choose between their livelihood or education and their cultural identity and/or hair health.  Due to repeat manipulation or chemically-based styling (i.e., using straighteners or relaxing hair from its natural state), Black hair may become vulnerable to breakage and loss, and the development of conditions such as trichorrhexis nodosa and traction alopecia. . . . In some cases, altering hair from its natural form by way of repeat manipulation or chemically-based styling may also expose individuals to risk of severe skin and scalp damage. Medical harm may also extend beyond the skin or scalp; for instance, a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology linked the use of hair relaxers to an increase in uterine fibroids, which disproportionately impact Black women.

Black people with tightly-coiled or tightly-curled hair textures face significant socioeconomic pressure to straighten or relax their hair to conform to white and European standards of beauty, which can cause emotional distress, including dignitary and stigmatic harms. Because of these expectations, in addition to the physical harms noted above, Black people are more likely than white people to spend more time on their hair, spend more money on professional styling appointments and products, and experience anxiety related to hair. These experiences highlight the unique and heavy burden and personal investment involved in decision-making around hair for Black communities, and the consequences of being compelled to style one’s hair according to white and European beauty standards or be stigmatized for wearing one’s hair in a natural style. (Footnotes omitted.)

According to the CROWN Coalition, an alliance promoting the enactment of CROWN Act legislation, in addition to the eight states that have now enacted a statewide version of the CROWN Act, another 24 states were considering similar legislation in 2020, and an additional 17 municipalities have adopted similar local laws, including select cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico, Georgia, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Missouri and Arizona. For further information on the CROWN Act campaign, see: .

Trainings by Reavis Page Jump LLP

RPJ has long provided harassment and discrimination prevention and inclusivity training to our clients. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are currently offering our live online training sessions via Zoom.

Our sessions are designed to satisfy the statutory legal requirements of New York State, New York City, Connecticut and California. RPJ’s engaging and interactive live online programs are led by attorneys of our firm, drawing on our unique perspective from decades of experience in the legal trenches of employment law, discrimination prevention and dispute resolution. Our attorneys also serve as the faculty for the “on demand” sexual harassment prevention training courses co-produced with AltaClaro, a leading provider of interactive online experiential training and legal education programs, which are similarly designed to satisfy the statutory training requirements.

To learn more about RPJ’s live trainings (in-person or on Zoom) or the on-demand training courses, please visit our Training Programs page, or contact Deena R. Merlen directly by email at or phone at 212-763-4160 (NY) or 203-653-4422 (CT).

This article is intended only as a general discussion of these issues. It is not considered to be legal advice or relied upon in regard to particular legal matters. If you seek assistance with a particular employment law or labor law matter, please contact RPJ Partner Deena R. Merlen to discuss.