Note: Karla Arroyo is the Inaugural Fellow of the CROWN Campaign.
The Crown Act has had VP Kamala Harris on its side for some time. But what does it mean now that she’s in a position of power at the executive level?
The pervasive belief that Black women’s hair must be straight in the workplace and schools goes beyond aesthetics. For ages (and still today), Black women feel the need to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards, which deems straight hair as the norm.
This is embedded in many institutions today, resulting in a lack of opportunities and diverse and inclusive spaces for Black people.
For Dr. Patricia O’Brien-Richardson, Associate Professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, hosting events like the annual CROWN Conference offers a platform to discuss her three core values: inclusion, education, and cultivating community.
The second annual CROWN Conference, dubbed #CROWNCON2021 on social media, was moderated by Dr. O’Brien-Richardson and supported by the Bloustein School at Rutgers University’s Division of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement.
Panelists included co-founders of the CROWN Campaign, Dr. Bernice B. Rumala, and Shemekka Ebony; Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU-NJ, Karen Thompson; MPH candidates at the Rutgers School of Public Health, Christina Anderson and Amber Rockson.
Hair discrimination dates back to the Transatlantic slave trade, where millions of Africans forcefully migrated to the Americas. Slaveowners and colonizers viewed slaves as animals and referred to their hair as wool. This eventually led to the notion that Black hair is problematic and inferior to that of European hair.
Today, European beauty standards such as fine hair and light skin make many Black and brown people question their identity in white spaces.
“Hair marks who we are as Black people,” says Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU-NJ, Karen Thompson.
“Of the many injuries that the Middle Passage did to us as Black people, I think one of the things that is such a loss is that we lost that relationship to our hair as expression,” Thompson added.
Attorney Karen Thompson also discussed the concept of hair fractals, which are infinite repeating patterns seen in architecture, clothing patterns, braids, and hair in general. African design has existed in the use of fractals, which are depicted in the photo above.
Thompson cites that dehumanizing events such as the Middle Passage has stripped many Black people from their ancestry. “We think we don’t have this lineage but we have a lineage and it is profound,” said Attorney Thompson. “We have history–the way we look, the way our hair grows, it is profound,” she added.
Structural violence towards Black hair and even Black body types may appear different as time passes, but the intention remains the same. When slaves arrived to the Americas, their hair was shaven as a way to erase their culture.
In the 1700s, Tignon Laws forced Black women in Louisiana to cover their hair with head wraps because their hair was viewed as dangerous.
“Americans were fed a diet of anti-Blackness and Black hair. We fast forward to the 60s and see the afro as a symbol of violence and anti-police/government,” said Dr. Patricia O’Brien-Richardson. “Every decade has brought us a reminder that Black hair is not accepted,” she added.
Next steps for CROWNCON and the CROWN Act with Kamala Harris in office
The election of U.S. President Joseph R. Biden and Madam Vice President Kamala Harris offers hope for many Black and brown people across the country.
Harris, who comes from a Black and Asian-American background, resonates with a lot of women, like CROWN Campaign co-founder, Shemekka Ebony, who is ecstatic about more CROWN-related policies.
“I believe [that] with her representation of leading the Senate, her representation of having the way paved with Senator Cory Booker presenting it to the floor back in January of last year, there could be opportunity that it will mobilize, so we can go!”, exclaimed Ebony.
“So if I were to make some projections, I project people are more confident in their hair journey,” Ebony added.
While MVP Kamala Harris is a great signifier of change for not only the Crown act but Black and brown communities, there is still a way to go. Luckily, for many anti-discrimination advocates, Dr. Patricia O’Brien-Richardson plans to host CROWN Conferences every year until the CROWN Act is passed on a federal level.
Dr. Patti also plans to give her students the autonomy to host the event because they are “awesome, amazing, can go viral and reach more people”.
New Jersey became the third state to pass the CROWN Act in December 2019, following New York. So, for Dr. Patti, it’s perfect that CROWNCON is held in New Jersey, in an institution where public policy is the focus.
To watch the #CROWNCON2021 recording, click here. Note: Karla Arroyo is the Inaugural Fellow for the CROWN Campaign.