Students testify for CROWN Act to outlaw hair-based discrimination

by Madeleine Bernardeau | 2/18/21 2:00am

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Princilla Minkah ’21, Stella Asa ’22 and Daniella Omeruo ’21 (pictured from left to right) have helped lead an effort to pass the CROWN Act in New Hampshire, which would ban race-based hair discrimination in workplaces and public schools. 

Source: Courtesy of Princilla Minkah ’21

Four Dartmouth students testified in front of the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 10 in support of the CROWN Act, a law that would extend statutory protections to natural hair texture and protective styles, such as braids, locs and twists, in schools and workplaces. On Tuesday, the committee retained the bill — delaying it for at least a year — in order to clarify its language, according to sponsoring representative Mary Beth Walz, D-Bow.

The CROWN Act, short for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, is a national campaign launched by Dove, the National Urban League, Color Of Change and Western Center on Law and Poverty in 2019. Already law in seven states, three counties and 11 cities, the act has been introduced in New Hampshire as House Bill 359.

“It's important to pass this act in the state of New Hampshire,” Princilla Minkah ’21 said, referencing the “Live Free or Die” motto of the state as an indication of the state’s emphasis on individualism. “[The motto] should also apply to me being a Black woman, and every area of my Black culture — one of the most important being my hair, the way I present myself and the way I look.”

Once the bill has been redrafted to clarify its language, the committee will look at the bill again in the fall, Walz said. 

Dartmouth’s Pi Theta Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. led the charge to campaign for the New Hampshire legislature to consider the bill. The idea for the local movement was conceived almost two years ago by Minkah, the chapter’s president, and vice president Daniella Omeruo ’21. Together, they reached out to the organizers of the national CROWN Act campaign, who connected them with resources and recommendations for contacting state representatives. The sorority also campaigned via social media to recruit members of the community to sign and testify in support of the bill.

“New Hampshire is predominantly white, and we go to a predominantly white institution,” Minkah said. “If there's a national campaign going on to end race-based hair discrimination, we need to join that fight, even though we live in a predominantly white area.”

Walz said she filed the bill in the fall, and it was then assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. As the primary sponsor of the bill, Walz introduced it at the Zoom hearing on Feb. 10. Eleven people testified in support of the bill, and none against it. Four of the testimonies were given by current Dartmouth students, two of whom are affiliated with Delta Sigma Theta. 

Omeruo, one of the students who testified, shared a memory of a professional development workshop for Black women that she attended during her junior year. In the workshop, led by another Black woman, attendees were advised not to wear afros, natural hair or protective styles in professional interviews, Omeruo said, noting that about half of the participants in the room were sporting natural hairstyles, including herself.

“Why do I have to go spend money to do my hair for the interview?” Omeruo said she asked during the workshop. “Why do I have to straighten my hair?”

Stella Asa ’22, another Delta Sigma Theta member who testified at the hearing, also shared her firsthand experience with hair-based discrimination in New Hampshire. According to Asa, on her first day of rehearsal at a regional theater, she was told that her hair was “so big that nobody could see [her] face” and that “[her] appearance was impeding the rehearsal process.” 

“The goal of my testimony is to make it clear that race-based discrimination is real,” she said to the committee. “It would mean the world to me, and to a lot of other young Black people in New Hampshire, for a bill like this — something that actually sees people who look like me — to pass in New Hampshire.” 

Omeruo echoed the personal importance of this bill, noting that to her, the bill is about more than just hair. She argued that it also addresses “deeper reasons” and the philosophy behind the denial of Black hair, such as “invasion of space, degradation and disrespect.” 

Vitallia Williams ’22 volunteered to testify at the hearing after seeing the sorority post about it on their Instagram. An Army veteran, Williams told the committee about an Army regulation passed last month that made uniform regulations more inclusive to Black women.

“It was significant for me to show up for this bill because I needed people in New Hampshire to know that the United States Army [is] ahead of the curve” as compared to New Hampshire, Williams said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Reflecting on her experience at the hearing, Omeruo said that although it was “nerve-wracking” at times, “it was also really powerful, too, because there were such strong Black women that came and testified and said great things, reassured [her] and empowered [her].”

With the bill retained, the focus will be on redrafting the text ahead of the next work session in late summer or early fall. This fall, the committee will vote on the redrafted bill. Should it pass, it will be sent to the floor of the full House in early January 2022.

Walz said she hopes the bill will help give people the tools to argue against any hair-based discrimination that they might encounter.

“My hope is that if something should happen to someone, and there is discrimination based on natural hairstyle, that person then has a vehicle to try and address discrimination,” she said.