Kent County considering ban on hair discrimination

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – A few weeks ago a mother called Kent County’s agent Robert Womack and asked him to persuade her son to cut his dreadlocks off so he could get a job at Grand Rapids.

“I told him to cut those dreadlocks off. I told him if he wanted a job, you’d have to cut your hair and he wouldn’t listen to me, ”Womack remembered her saying. “I said, ‘No, your son shouldn’t have to cut his hair.'”

It’s not the first time Womack has heard of blacks being overlooked for job opportunities because their hair or hairstyle doesn’t match a white European look, he said. As a black man, he experienced it too.

It was that conversation, and the Ingham County leaders, who recently passed a ban on hair discrimination in their hiring practices, prompted Womack to bring a similar measure to Kent County.

Kent County’s staff are currently considering Womack’s proposal to ban hair discrimination in the county’s hiring practices and human resources policies and to issue a proclamation on the matter, he said. The prohibition applies only to the affairs of the state of Kent County, not to corporations or other governments within the county.

Kent County Administrator Wayman Britt was unable to comment as he was out of the office. District officials say Womack’s application for proclamation is pending and that staff will start working on the issue when they return from vacation.

The issue was raised at the last county board meeting on March 25, and Womack said it was well received.

“I see the fact that if Kent County incorporates the principles of the CROWN Act into its recruitment practices, we may be able to set an example for many companies across the county to adopt those anti-discrimination practices,” he said.

“My main point is, what’s on your head has nothing to do with what’s in your head, and people should have a choice to wear their natural hairstyle without being discriminated against.”

The CROWN Act is a campaign Dove launched in 2019 to end discrimination against racial hairstyles in the workplace and in public schools. The campaign calls on elected leaders to pass laws to protect against discrimination against hair textures and styles such as braids, dreadlocks, twists and knots.

CROWN is an abbreviation for “Creating a respectful and open world for natural hair”.

According to a 2019 study commissioned by Dove that surveyed 1,000 black and 1,000 white women, the likelihood that black women would have to change their hair from its natural state to fit in the office was 80% higher than in white women.

Womack said he will take every measure Kent County takes to protect both race-based hairstyles and everyone else. Womack also sits on Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Black Leadership Advisory Council and said he plans to reopen a nationwide ban on hairstyle discrimination.

Kent County commissioner Michelle McCloud said hairstyle discrimination based on racing isn’t always overtly like a 2018 incident where a high school wrestling referee got a sports student to cut his dreadlocks or that Lose match.

“I can’t say I’ve been influenced in the extreme ways we’ve seen on social media, but as a woman of color I definitely feel at times that that way I might not have had opportunities I wear my hair, ”said McCloud. “Can I prove it? No. But there is always this feeling, always the feeling that your hair is exotic to people because of the way you wear it. “

McCloud said she supported the county’s implementation of a CROWN Act-like measure, even if it would be difficult to monitor some of the more subtle discrimination. She said passing the measure would show that the county recognizes this as a problem people are facing.

The discrimination is related to a bigger issue where the standards of beauty and professional appearance are Eurocentric, she said.

“I see that (this type of discrimination) ends when the standards of beauty change and the standards of expectation based on those standards of beauty change,” she said. “Until we address the racial issues our society has always grappled with, I don’t know the conversation will end.

“I think this is just something to protect people from the obvious discrimination that hair has on them. But I think the conversation will continue until we, as a nation, deal with the broader issues related to race. “

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