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Kansas City Looks To Ban Discrimination Based On Hairstyle

Lisa Rodriguez
KCUR 89.3
Sandra Thornhill, with her son Jerren, says she's been singled out at previous jobs for changing her hairstyle too frequently. She's pushing for Kansas City to ban discrimination based on natural or protected hairstyles.

Kansas City would be one of only a few cities in the country to make hair discrimination illegal.

Sandra Thornhill has been thinking about — and suffering for — her hair as long as she can remember.

“Since I was a little girl…worried about my hair, getting burned by the hot comb to get it straightened out on a Sunday morning to be presentable,” Thornhill says.

As an adult, Thornhill says she would spend hours twisting her hair so that it looked like the perfect Afro. It wasn’t until graduate school that she decided to embrace dreadlocks — a decision she says allows her to be more present at work and in public.

Thornhill, who now works for the nonprofit organization Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, says she wants her two-year-old son, Jerren, to feel the same freedom.

She’s advocating for Kansas City officials to pass an ordinance that would amend the definition of race in the city charter to include “hair texture and protective hairstyles” like dreadlocks, braids or twists.

“To raise him in a city that is going to accept him for who he is as a Black male, who will be able to present himself fully without changing his hair, is going to mean a lot,” Thornhill says.

The ordinance, also known as the CROWN Act, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair, was introduced by councilwomen Ryana Parks-Shaw and Melissa Robinson. It will be heard by the city’s Finance, Governance and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday.

At a press event Tuesday at Plush Life Beauty Lounge in the midtown area, Parks-Shaw said the idea was embraced by her colleagues on the council.

Lisa Rodriguez
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw is behind legislation that would ban discrimination against workers for wearing Black hairstyles like dreadlocks or braids.

She said even throughout her campaign for city council, she grappled with whether to wear her natural hair straight or curly.

“Because I wanted voters to see me for who I am, but I know that that hair does make an impact,” Parks-Shaw says.

A study conducted by Dove in 2019 found that Black women are far more likely than non-Black women to be sent home from work because of their hair, and that 80% of Black women said they’ve changed their hair from its natural state to fit in at work.

The proposed ordinance would apply to all employers in Kansas City, Missouri.

Councilwoman Melissa Robinson said this is a chance for her colleagues on the council to match their rhetoric on discrimination with a policy commitment.

“We talk about making an inclusive and a whole community, but oftentimes we don't have the laws and the policies that line up to that inclusivity,” Robinson said.

Jennifer Duckworth, owner of Plush Life Beauty Lounge, says she looks forward to the passage of this measure.

“Far too many times, I've heard my clients say while sitting in my chair, ‘I'm going in for an interview tomorrow, so I'm getting my hair blown out, smoothed or straightened because I'm afraid that my hair in its natural curly state won't get me the job,’” Duckworth said.

Lisa Rodriguez
KCUR 89.3
A hairstylist works with a client at Plush Life Beauty Lounge in Kansas City, Missouri.

California was the first state to pass the CROWN Act, followed by New York and New Jersey.

If it passes the full council, Kansas City will become one of the few cities to provide such protection.

Similar legislation was introduced last year at the state level by Kansas Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau and Missouri Rep. Barbara Anne Washington but didn’t make it to vote by the legislature in either state.

Michelle Watley, founder of Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, which is dedicated to advocating for Black women, said the coronavirus pandemic complicated this year’s legislative sessions.

“We’re hopeful that we can work with legislators on both sides of the state line to reintroduce both acts in the coming legislative year and hopefully get them passed at the state level,” Watley said.

She said the significance of this legislation is only greater in today’s climate, as employers across the country deal with a reckoning on race and inclusivity.

“Rules that ban locks, braids, and twists are rooted in racist stereotypes about Black hair being unkempt, unclean, unprofessional and not beautiful,” Watley said.

“We want to ensure that Black people have the same opportunities to enjoy academic opportunities and economic opportunities and not being blocked from those opportunities simply because of the natural state of their hair.”

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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