Karen Farmer White on One of the Craziest Forms of Discrimination You May Not Know About

black and brown people with natural hairstyles, vector

Photo credit: iStockphoto.com (nadia_bormotova)

Karen Farmer White on One of the Craziest Forms of Discrimination You May Not Know About

Karen Farmer White is an advocate’s advocate–a woman who has spent decades of her life working on behalf of women, racial equity, education, health care, and more.

She is a founding board member of the Pennsylvania Conference for Women and the current chair of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education. She was also the vice president of education at WQED Multimedia, where she won three Mid-Atlantic Emmys for her work in educational television programming. 

So, when she told us recently that we should tell the Conferences for Women community about the CROWN Act, we listened. Here are excerpts from our recent conversation. 

CFW: Would you briefly explain what the CROWN Act is and what problem it seeks to address?  

Black and brown people, especially Black women, readily face discrimination in schools and workplaces based on the texture and style of their hair. This is yet another form of racial discrimination and another way to control and police people of color. It’s crazy!

The CROWN [Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair] Act seeks to address this form of discrimination and promote diversity, inclusion, and acceptance of natural hair in society by ensuring that individuals have the right to wear their natural hair in schools, workplaces, and other public spaces without facing prejudice or bias.

Twenty-four states have approved it, but it has yet to be adopted in every state. [To see where your state stands, visit https://www.thecrownact.com.]

CFW: What is the significance of this issue in terms of its impact on working women? 

Natural hair is a declaration of personal identity. It’s a symbol of our heritage and ancestry. So, a lot of black and brown people signal cultural heritage by wearing their hair naturally. 

But Black women’s hair is 2.5 times as likely to be perceived as unprofessional. Over 20 percent of Black women aged 25 to 34 have been sent home because of hair. And 

two-thirds of Black women change their hair for job interviews. 

My daughter has done this.  She has beautiful hair. But to just be on the safe side, she has made sure to straighten her hair before job interviews. 

There is also an economic piece to this. It costs money to get hair straightened. If women are willing to do that, fine. But if they feel they must do it, that is something else. It’s about people trying to change who you are.  

CFW: What steps should workplaces take to raise awareness about the importance of the CROWN Act within their workplaces and communities?

Everything is about educating people. It is detrimental to discriminate against people because of their hair. This is so obvious. Plus, employers lose good people if they don’t hire someone because of their appearance.

Most people probably don’t even know what the CROWN Act is. If the Conferences for Women community could know a little about what it is and educate the people they work with, that is the way to go. And if you do see Black women discriminated against in this way, speak up. This is part of what it means to be women supporting other women.

Karen Farmer White