Kansas lawmakers take up legislation forbidding discrimination based on hairstyle traditions

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Wichita, Lawrence and Atchison enforce ordinances tied to hair texture, grooming

TOPEKA — The founder of a Kansas City, Missouri, nonprofit dedicated to expanding the influence of Black women urged members of the Kansas Legislature to join Nebraska, Colorado and more than 20 other states by prohibiting discrimination based on ancestry linked to hairstyle and hair texture.

Michele Watley, who created Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, told members of a Kansas Senate committee the problem was illustrated last year when Girard public school district administrators compelled an 8-year-old Native American boy, who was a member of the Wyandotte Nation, to cut his long hair or face expulsion.

In 2021, she said, a Black student at Ottawa University was kicked off the cheerleading squad after a coach ordered her to remove a hair bonnet during a practice that was protecting her nearly 3-foot-long braids.

“These rules disproportionately affect Black Kansans … and create unnecessary barriers to growing our economy, providing access to employment and education,” Watley said. “This bill will go a long way in sending the message to talent in our neighboring competitive states that Kansas values a talented workforce and welcomes and encourages diversity.”

Under Senate Bill 36, the Kansas Act Against Discrimination would be amended to prohibit ancestral discrimination associated with hair texture and protective styling that involved hair braids, locs, twists or knots. The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee received oral or written testimony Thursday from 26 people endorsing the legislation. The committee didn’t debate or vote on the bill.

Supporters of the legislation said comparable Crown Act bills had passed in Texas, Arkansas, Arizona, Illinois, Tennessee, Alaska, New Mexico, Minnesota, Nevada, Virginia, Nebraska and Colorado. Legislation associated with the Crown Act, or Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, has been filed in 20 states. The U.S. House passed a bill in 2022, but it wasn’t taken up by the U.S. Senate.

 Stacey Knoell, executive director of the Kansas African-Affairs Commission, said there were historic, medical and cultural reasons for Kansas to join more than 20 states applying anti-discrimination protections to ancestral hairstyle traditions. (Kansas Reflector screen capture of Kansas Legislature’s YouTube channel)

‘A cosmetic decision’

Stacey Knoell, executive director of the Kansas African-Affairs Commission, said the legislation should be approved by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Laura Kelly because the state should make clear that it was a welcoming place to people of diverse ancestry.

“What my hair looks like has no bearing on whether I can do my job,” Knoell said. “It’s purely a cosmetic decision.”

William Wilk, senior director of government affairs for the Kansas Chamber, said the organization supported current protections in law against discrimination based on race or ancestry. He said discrimination against hair styles was prohibited under current law, but recommended inclusion in the Kansas bill the protections for employers placed in Nebraska’s statute.

“We have strong concerns that SB36 would create unintended consequences as it relates to the impact on an an employers’ ability to enforce dress codes and ensure the safety of their employees as it relates to (federal) OSHA standards,” he said.

The Kansas Human Rights Commission would be responsible for receiving, investigating and attempting to resolve complaints about housing, employment and public accommodation discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin, ancestry, genetic screening and testing, familial status and retaliation.

The commission also conducts a public education program to share information about discrimination law, said Ruth Glover, executive director of the Kansas Human Rights Commission.

In the 2023 fiscal year, the Kansas commission received 152 allegations of ancestry or national origin discrimination.

Glover said the commission’s jurisdiction didn’t extend to student enrollment and activities due to a 1988 decision of the Kansas Supreme Court. She said the state’s anti-bullying statute could be an appropriate place to place prohibitions on discrimination by students, school staff or school boards in relation to a person’s natural hair.

“As an unbiased, fact-finding, investigative body, the KHRC takes a neutral stance on the proposed legislation and to avoid the presumption the agency may favor one side or other if the legislation is adopted,” she said.

Amber Sellers, who serves on the Lawrence City Commission, said a proposed bill before the Kansas Legislature broadening application of anti-discrimination law would better serve Kansans who present their hair in ways that reflected cultural identity. (Kansas Reflector screen capture of the Kansas Legislature's YouTube channel)
 Amber Sellers, who serves on the Lawrence City Commission, said a proposed bill before the Kansas Legislature broadening application of anti-discrimination law would better serve Kansans who present their hair in ways that reflected cultural identity. (Kansas Reflector screen capture of the Kansas Legislature’s YouTube channel)

Three cities on board

Approximately 40 U.S. cities have approved ordinances forbidding discrimination based on hairstyles, including Lawrence, Wichita and Atchison in Kansas.

Amber Sellers, the first Black woman to serve on the Lawrence City Commission, said there was data supporting the experiences of Black women, men and children under pressure to align with unrealistic beauty and professionalism standards. Research shed light on the personal economic costs and challenges Black people encountered when attempting to embrace their cultural identity, she said.

“In 2014,” she said, “I transitioned to wearing my hair naturally. At the time, I was working for an engineering firm in the private sector. Regrettably, this choice became a frequent topic of undue attention, leading to subtle and overt critiques and comments from staff. When the company’s vice president, without permission, ran his hands through my hair and commented, ‘I don’t know how you can sit through such a process,’ I knew I needed to share how inappropriate and unprofessional the exchange was. My story is far from unique.”

She urged the Senate committee to elevate the anti-discrimination legislation introduced in the Senate from a point of conversation to a point of law.

Rep. Stephanie Sawyer Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat, said similar legislation related to discrimination in hairstyles or hair textures had been the subject of hearings in the Kansas Legislature, but year after year no action was taken to formally reject this form of discrimination.

“I believe it is unfair for people who want to work or participate in school events to be discriminated against due to the texture or style of their hair,” Clayton said. “The health risks, time and money to comply with the Westernized ideal of hair texture and style is something that should have disappeared from our culture decades ago.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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