On March 1, 2020, Connecticut became the eighth state to pass the Crown Act, a national legislative movement that recognizes natural hair and cultural headwear discrimination as a form of racial discrimination in the workplace. This law provides protections to susceptible groups impacted by employer-based discrimination. While we are in strong support and advocate for this law, it is important to recognize the limitations of the Crown Act and how it can be improved upon in future policy.
The Crown Act specifically protects individuals who are employed or seeking employment; however, it excludes a crucial vulnerable group who often experiences the brunt of hair and cultural headwear discrimination — children and adolescents. When looking at the Connecticut Crown Act, it fails to protect the entirety of its constituents where it matters most: by demanding school districts and youth-centered sports policies to stop discriminating against natural hairstyles and cultural headwear.
In fact, within the past five years, a number of news stories across our nation, have centered around children experiencing hair discrimination in schools, youth-centered sports, and extracurricular activities. Most recently, four-year-old Jett Nelson, was forced to cut his hair due to the dress code policy that bans braided hairstyles in boys at his Illinois’ school. This policy was put into place by administration despite knowing this natural hairstyle is primarily worn in Black/African-American cultures.
In 2017, a New Jersey high school wrestler was discriminated against when he was given the ultimatum to either cut her dreadlocks or forfeit her wrestling match. Furthermore, in 2019, a Georgian elementary school displayed images of only Black/African-American students with different hairstyles, including dreadlocks and braids, labeling them as “inappropriate.” While the photos were quickly removed after being cited as insensitive, these examples demonstrate the prevalent hairstyle discrimination still engrained throughout the country.
Internationally, school dress codes have been used as tools of policing children of color from expressing their natural hairstyles and cultural identities. In South Africa, Pretoria High School for Girls’ dress code banned girls from wearing cornrows, braids, and dreadlocks. It was not until students protested against this policy and received notoriety that this policy was finally changed. The United Kingdom, just like the United States, has also dealt with hair discrimination amongst children. Five-year-old Josiah Sharpe was suspended from Summerhill Primary Academy for having a standard fade haircut, a popular haircut which is normally seen in Black communities. Furthermore, 12-year-old Chikayzea Flanders faced suspension from his school because his dreadlocked hair, which he wore tied up, did not comply with the school’s uniform and appearance policy.
Needless to say, in the United States from New Mexico to even our neighboring state, Massachusetts, minority children have been punished for displaying their natural and cultural identities through hairstyles by using school policies as a means to justify punishment.
In many of these prejudiced situations, punishment takes on the form of suspension, which contributes to the recognized discriminatory and racist school-to-prison pipeline that systematically targets students of color. In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement on the Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health citing “failure to address racism will continue to undermine health equity for all children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families.” Most importantly, the U.S. Department of Education confirms a disproportionate number of Black/African-American children receive more than one out-of-school suspension in pre-school, and overall, three times more expulsion in kindergarten through grade 12. In addition, they are three times more likely to be suspended, and 1.9 times more likely to be expelled when compared to white students.
So how can Connecticut become a leader in this conflict? Our Connecticut legislators have already recognized this important issue and proposed Senate Bill 245, which prohibits school district policies from discriminating against students based on natural hair and hairstyles. Though the current legislative session is coming to a close, this movement should not be dismissed. Connecticut can become a model example for our nation, and the world, by demanding school districts correct discriminating policies that diminish cultural expression and primarily harm children of color. This significant bill, if re-introduced in the next legislative session, will not only improve children and adolescents’ health equity in our state, but will also show our minority families we value their children’s ability to attend schools that allow them to express their natural and cultural identities free of judgement or consequences. At the end of the day, this is about providing a safe environment so children and adolescents can focus on their education, and not on their subjective appearance.
Jade A. Anderson MD is a medical resident. Faith D. Crittenden and Whitney L. Stuard are medical students.