Carmen Davis went natural in 2014, motivated by her mother to do the “big chop”, a phrase commonly used to describe cutting off chemically straightened Black hair in favor of naturally textured kinks, coils or curls.
Standing in front of the recently defaced statue of the Confederate leader Robert E Lee in Richmond, Virginia, she recalled the backlash against her decision.
“My roommate in college stopped talking me,” she said, noting how even in college at the time, being natural was rare. “She told me it was embarrassing to be seen with me and that I’d regret it.”
Today, Davis is a natural hairstylist, helping women in the Richmond area transition from chemical processing. Her former roommate eventually became one of her many clients.
Business is growing for Davis, but she admits change is slow in the “conservative, southern” state where, in many places, wearing natural hair could mean being denied a job or socially ostracized.
“Society overall frowns upon Black hair, but here it can still be uncommon for people to embrace it because of judgment or just the every day exhaustion of having to explain your Blackness,” she said.
Now they won’t have to. Virginia became the fourth US state, and the first in the south, to pass legislation banning hair discrimination based on racial identifiers including hair texture and hair type, as well as “protective hairstyles such as braids, [locs] and twists”. The law, known as the Crown Act, goes into effect on Wednesday.
“A person’s hair is a core part of their identity. Nobody deserves to be discriminated against simply due to the hair type they were born with, or the way in which they choose to wear it,” Delores McQuinn, a state delegate and the bill’s lead sponsor, said as the bill passed.
At its signing, the Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, said disciplining kids and adults in schools and workforces for wearing natural hair was “not only unacceptable and wrong” but “not what [they] stand for in Virginia”. Advocates say the law will put an end to those punitive actions, which the governor insisted are examples of “discrimination”.
At the Lee monument, hundreds have been gathering daily since protesters first attempted to tear down the statue earlier this month as part of mass anti-racism demonstrations across the US sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer in May.
Vendors sell masks and water at the makeshift tourist attraction. People gather to perform, pose for photos or add to the colorful graffiti. Proclamations of “Black Lives Matter” as well as “Murderer” and other profanities now cover the statue’s base.
The crowd at times included many Black men and women sporting natural and protective styles like braids, Afros, dreadlocks and twists. The Guardian interviewed more than a dozen Black Virginians who wear their hair naturally, and were told personal stories of social isolation, professional microaggressions and racist bullying they have faced.
Bimi, a musical artist locally known as Bimi The Fairy Queen, was seven when her hair was first chemically straightened, calling it “a coming-of-age practice that all the women in [her] family did”.
“By the time I went natural at 18, I didn’t even know what my real texture looked like,” she said. “I didn’t know how to describe that feeling at the time. I just knew it wasn’t right.”
Now a popular artist, Bimi makes jewelry for dreadlocks and braids. With dark brown, waist-length locs of her own, she recalled her own experiences with discrimination. She once pre-qualified for a role teaching Spanish, only to show up for her interview and be told there were no vacancies.
She said Virginia’s Crown Act “could pave the way for more southern states to jump on the bandwagon and be on the right side of history”.
First crafted and sponsored by the California state senator Holly Mitchell, the Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair – or Crown – Act passed unanimously and was signed into law in 2019, followed by similar versions in New Jersey and New York soon after.
Friday will mark National Crown Day, on the first anniversary of California’s adoption of the Crown Act, which campaigners have created to celebrate Black people, their right to wear their natural hair without fear of discrimination, and to help push for other states to take up the legislation.
The legislation has gained momentum after several incidents that have sparked outrage in recent years, in which children were disciplined at school, or employees were fired, simply for wearing dreadlocks, braids or afros. Support jumped following the release of the 2019 film Hair Love, about a Black father learning to do his daughter’s hair for the first time.
During his Oscar speech, director Matthew A Cherry called on “all 50 states” to pass the Crown Act, vowing “to normalize Black hair”. He was joined by Deandre Arnold, a Black high school student from Texas who, in January, was suspended over his refusal to cut his dreadlocks, and barred from participating in the school’s graduation.
For Black men, the social stigmas that make wearing long hair taboo can be even worse, with hair that grows out and textured, not down and straight.
“You’re judged as a threat, a hoodlum or a thug,” said Marcos Johnson, an entrepreneur who wore dreadlocks for eight years before opting for braids. “Whether we have to get a job, go to court, submit documents, it doesn’t matter. One of the first things men here will do when they go is cut their hair.”
Johnson noted that wearing natural hair can still be dangerous or unsafe in some rural places, calling it “disgusting” for any anti-hair discrimination law to be necessary in 2020.
Black hair has a complicated history in the US. Many descendants of Africans, brought from cultures in which hairstyles could indicate a person’s family background, tribe or social status, were forced to adopt protective styles to prevent their hair from being damaged by the elements as they endured centuries of slavery.
In Louisiana in the 1700s, Tignon Laws even forced Black women to wear head wraps. Their natural hairstyles were considered a threat to the beauty of White women. Many adopted elaborate scarf and head wrapping techniques in a defiant effort to reclaim their beauty and image.
Today, federal regulations on Black hairstyles are inconsistent. A federal court ruled in 2016 that employers can legally fire employees or deny applicants for wearing dreadlocks and other hairstyles commonly associated with African Americans.
But many activists point to the US military as a source of hope. Known for enforcing some of the strictest appearance and grooming regulations, its five branches formally revoked bans on natural hairstyles, including dreadlocks, in 2017 after a years-long legal battle.
Whennah Andrews of the US national guard led that fight, beginning with a 2014 challenge to revised army restrictions that would have banned the dreadlocks she had worn for several years, as well as styles like braids and twists. She has now transitioned to the civilian world, educating corporations on how to better accommodate Black cultural expressions in the workforce.
Today, most states don’t have laws that explicitly ban discrimination based on a person’s natural hairstyle or texture. But that is changing. Colorado, where Andrews resides, followed Virginia and became the fifth state to pass the Crown Act in March. Thirteen states are currently weighing similar legislation.
Back at the Robert E Lee Memorial, Davis was optimistic about what Wednesday’s change will mean in practice.
As protests amplify conversations about racism and discrimination, Andrews noted the powerful symbolism for the former capital of the Confederacy to be first in the south to adopt the Crown Act.
“It’s a leap forward not just in the south, but for change across the nation,” Davis said, raising her fist while looking up at the statue peering over the scene where, the day before, a half dozen people were arrested following clashes between protesters and far-right agitators.
“Just existing here with our locs, and our Afros and braids is the resistance,” Davis said. “It sends the message: wear your crown because change is coming.”