woman wearing blue denim jacket with flowers on hair

Virginia’s Crown Act will be in effect starting Wednesday. Other southern states may follow suit.

Carmen Davis went natural in 2004 after her mother encouraged her to do the “big cut”, which is a term used to describe removing chemically straightened Black hair to make way for naturally textured kinks and curls.

Standing in front of the recently defaced statue of the Confederate leader Robert E Lee in Richmond, Virginia, she recalled the backlash against her decision.

“My college roommate stopped talking to me, she stated, noting that it was embarrassing to be seen together and that it would make me regret it.”

Davis is now a natural hairstylist helping women in Richmond to transition from chemical processing. She eventually made her roommate one of her clients.

Davis is seeing business growth, but Davis admits that change is slow in her “conservative southern” state. Natural hair can be a deterrent to employment or social acceptance.

She said that although society generally frowns on Black hair, it is not uncommon for people to accept it.

woman wearing white turtleneck top and gold-colored earring

They won’t have anymore to. Virginia was the fourth state in the US and first in the South to adopt legislation that bans hair discrimination based upon racial identifiers. This includes hair texture and hair type. It also provides protection for hairstyles like braids, locs and twists. On Wednesday, the law, also known as The Crown Act, will go into effect.

“A person’s hair is an integral part of their identity. Nobody deserves to be discriminated against simply due to the hair type they were born with, or the way in which they choose to wear it,” Delores McQuinn, a state delegate and the bill’s lead sponsor, said as the bill passed.

At its signing, the Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, said disciplining kids and adults in schools and workforces for wearing natural hair was “not only unacceptable and wrong” but “not what [they] stand for in Virginia”. Advocates claim the law will end punitive actions that the governor said are discriminatory.

Since protesters attempted to demolish the Lee monument earlier this month, hundreds have been gathering at the Lee monument daily. This was part of the mass anti-racism demonstrations that took place across the US, which were sparked in part by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was shot and killed by a white Minneapolis cop in May.

At the tourist attraction, vendors sell water and masks. People come together to take photos, perform or contribute to the graffiti. The statue’s base now bears proclamations of “Black Lives Matter” and “Murderer”, among other profanities.

Many Black women and men wore protective and natural styles such as braids, Afros, and dreadlocks. The Guardian interviewed over a dozen Black Virginians with natural hairstyles. They shared their stories of social isolation and racism, as well as professional microaggressions.

Bimi, locally known as Bimi the Fairy Queen, was seven years old when her hair was first chemically straightened. She called it “a coming of age practice that all the women [in] her family did”.

She said, “By 18 I had no idea what my true texture was. I didn’t know what to call that feeling at the moment. It was obvious to me that it wasn’t right.”

Bimi is a well-known artist who makes jewelry for braids and dreadlocks. She wore dark brown, waist-length locs and recalled her own experiences dealing with discrimination. She was once prequalified to teach Spanish but showed up at her interview only to be informed that there were no vacancies.

She stated that Virginia’s Crown Act could allow more southern states to join the wagon and be part of the right side in history.

The Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair – or Crown – Act was first drafted and sponsored by Holly Mitchell, a California state senator. It was unanimously passed and signed into law in 2019. New Jersey and New York followed soon thereafter.

Friday will be National Crown Day. It marks the first anniversary of California’s adopting the Crown Act. Campaigners created it to honor Black people and their right to their natural hair, without fear or discrimination.

After several instances in recent years that caused outrage, where children were punished at school or employees fired for simply wearing dreadlocks or braids, the legislation gained momentum. The 2019 film Hair Love, which is about a Black father learning how to style his daughter’s hair, received a lot of support.

Director Matthew A Cherry called on all 50 states to pass the Crown Act and promised “to normalize Black hair.” Deandre Arnold, a Texas high school student of color, joined him. He was suspended in January for refusing to trim his dreadlocks and barred from the school’s graduation.

Black men can feel even more stigmatized by wearing long hair. Markos Johnson, an entrepreneur, said that he was judged as a threat or a hoodlum, or a thug. Markos wore dreadlocks for eighteen years before switching to braids. “It doesn’t matter if we need to get a job or go to court to submit documents, we have to cut hair before going not to be judged.”

Johnson noted that wearing natural hair can still be dangerous or unsafe in some rural places, calling it “disgusting” for any anti-hair discrimination law to be necessary in 2020.

The history of black hair in America is complicated. Many African descendants, who were brought from cultures where hairstyles could be used to indicate social status or family history, had to adopt protective styles to protect their hair from the elements. This was after years of slavery.

In Louisiana, in the 1700s, Tignon Laws even forced Black women into wearing head wraps. Their natural hairstyles were considered a threat to the beauty of White women. In an attempt to regain their beauty and image, many adopted elaborate head wraps and scarfs.

Federal regulations regarding Black hairstyles today are inconsistent. In 2016, a federal court ruled that employers could legally fire employees and deny applicants who wear dreadlocks or other hairstyles often associated with African Americans.

Many activists see the US military as a source for hope. Known for enforcing some of the strictest appearance and grooming regulations, its five branches formally revoked bans on natural hairstyles, .including dreadlocks, in 2017 after a years-long legal battle.

The fight began with Whennah Andrews, the US national guard, challenging revised army restrictions in 2014. This would have prohibited the dreadlocks she had worn for many years, as well styles such as braids and twists. Now she is a civilian, helping corporations to better accommodate Black cultural expressions within the workplace.

woman wearing blue denim jacket with flowers on hair

Today, almost all states do not have laws banning discrimination based upon a person’s hairstyle or texture. However, this is changing. Andrews is from Colorado. In March, Colorado became the fifth state that passed the Crown Act. Thirteen other states are currently considering similar legislation.

Davis, back at the Robert E Lee Memorial was positive about Wednesday’s changes in practice.

Andrews pointed out the powerful symbolism of the Confederacy’s former capital being the first to adopt the Crown Act in the South, as protests amplify conversations about racism.

“It’s a leap forward not just in the south, but for change across the nation,” Davis said, raising her fist while looking up at the statue peering over the scene where, the day before, a half dozen people were arrested following clashes between protesters and far-right agitators.

Davis stated, “Just being here with our locs and our Afros is resistance. It sends the message that you should wear your crown, because change is coming.”