For Angelina Austin, hair discrimination — and all its accompanying external and internal judgements — is a thread woven throughout her personal and professional life.
Austin, a Bay Area native and graduate of Golden Gate University School of Law, is the newest attorney at Oakland’s Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer, and its first Black attorney. Austin came to the 43-year-old Oakland firm with a fierce determination to bolster the firm’s work on cases involving civil rights and discrimination, whether the discrimination centers on race, age, gender identity, religion, disability, sex or, most recently, hair.
“Being an Oakland firm, civil rights cases and discrimination cases are two of the top issues we handle,” Austin said. “Nearly a quarter of the city’s population is African American, so this is part of taking care of the community.” Another 27 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, according to the most recent census data. And like Austin herself, nearly 9 percent are mixed race.
Thanks to the 2019 passage in California of the CROWN Act, the issue of hair discrimination is being acknowledged and addressed. Shorthand for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, the CROWN Act makes it illegal for employers, landlords and schools to discriminate against people based on hairstyles associated with race or ethnicity. Those styles include natural and protective styles such as braids, twists, cornrows, locks, Bantu knots and Afros. Or as Austin puts it, “styles that reflect the way our hair naturally grows.”
Far too often, however, styles emerging out of “the way our hair naturally grows” have resulted in putdowns and crackdowns in spheres ranging from schools to housing. Children have been expelled from school; workers have been reprimanded or fired; and prospective tenants have been rejected. Justifications for these actions have included assertions that the individual’s hair was “distracting,” “unsanitary,” “unruly,” “unkempt” and “unprofessional.” Oftentimes these labels are wielded regardless of job performance, scholastic standing or creditworthiness.
“I handle civil rights and discrimination cases all the time and when it comes to hair, discrimination is a constant,” Austin said. “It might be a derisive comment, or touching our hair, or offering suggestions for ‘better’ hair. I had one client, a hospital worker, whose Caucasian supervisor grabbed her hair — styled in single braids — flipped it, and asked: ‘When are you going to take these things out of your hair? They look gross.’”
Even Austin — an attorney, a mentor — has felt the judgement. “As a young professional in the legal industry, I’m not thinking just for myself, not even in terms of my hair,” she said. “I have to be evaluating things in the best interest of my clients. Like if I’m going to court, I don’t want my client to suffer because a judge or a juror doesn’t like my hair.”
The CROWN Act forthrightly recognizes these biases, stating that, “In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race and whether they were a second-class citizen, hair today remains a proxy for race. Therefore, hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination.”
The Bo Derek paradox
One example, now 43 years old but still potent for Austin and other Black and brown women, is that of Bo Derek, a Caucasian actress in the 1979 movie “10.” Derek’s blonde, beaded, swaying cornrows became the hairdo that launched a thousand hair appointments at Black salons — among white women. Their request: to get their hair “Bo Dereked.”
Kim Kardashian credited Bo Derek when she wore the hairstyle in 2018, causing an outcry over cultural appropriation.
“At some point in conversations about hair, Bo Derek always comes up,” Austin said. “When African Americans wear this style, it’s considered problematic. When Bo Derek wears this style, it’s considered glamorous.” The same biases apply to braids and twists. While braids or twists on a Black girl (or boy) can result in a reprimand, braided pigtails are seen as signs of cute girlishness when on a Dorothy or Pippi Longstocking.
“For African Americans, especially women, our hair is so closely entwined with the concepts of beauty, acceptance and respect,” Austin said. “I know for me, learning to embrace my own natural hair was quite a struggle. I mean, I grew up with Barbies. Who didn’t? I saw what was considered desirable. For someone like Bo Derek, it’s not a struggle. She can have that Barbie hair if she wants. She can change back any time she wants.”
Which brings up another point about the CROWN Act. It does not apply to political, countercultural, rebellious or splashy hairstyles like Mohawks, spikes, side shaves, skinheads or rainbow-colored. “The CROWN Act draws an important distinction between personal presentation, which is more of a freedom of speech issue, and hair discrimination,” Austin notes.
Support from Dove
The Act has not been an easy sell. The 2019 California bill was the result of the collective efforts of the CROWN Coalition, a national alliance composed of the National Urban League, Western Center on Law & Poverty, Color of Change and Dove. ”Yes, that Dove,” Austin said. “The beauty bar Dove. The company has been working very seriously on its inclusivity, showing all different body types and colors and ethnicities, in very beautiful ways. Having a large brand behind us has been really important.”
Since the enactment of California’s CROWN Act in 2019, 13 states and 29 municipalities have passed similar legislation. Yet the most powerful legislative entity in the country — the federal government — has not. Although a version of the CROWN Act passed in the House of Representatives in 2020, the bill remains stalled in the Senate, after a second round.
The Senate’s inaction is one more reason Austin wants to see more widespread awareness about the act. “Once again California has led the way in recognizing and righting a longstanding area of discrimination. We now need to get these protections nationwide.” That means mobilizing every pulpit — from beauty salons to festivals to friends around the kitchen table — to get the word out. And that goes for Oakland as well, she says. “It’s a new law and there isn’t a lot of awareness about it. But people should know because it’s a real step in the right direction for people of color in school and in the workplace.”
How much of a step was brought home to her in a recent court case. “I walked into court and the judge was wearing her hair in braids. And I thought, OK, that’s progress.”
Angelina M. Austin is an associate attorney with Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer, APC. Her practice focuses on all aspects of employment law, personal injury, and civil rights litigation.