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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Common Council Approves Proposal To Ban Hair Discrimination In Workplaces

A new Milwaukee Common Council measure would ban discrimination against hairstyles, which has been found to disproportionately affect Black women.

There are currently only six states in the U.S. that have laws against hair discrimination: California, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado, and Washington. Montgomery County, Maryland also bans the practice.

Lawmakers in Wisconsin introduced a similar bill in 2019 but it didn’t pass.

Now, Milwaukee’s Common Council is stepping up with its own measure. Alderwoman Milele Coggs is one of the co-sponsors. She says for many people, hair is not “just hair.”

"The reality is that hair has a cultural significance to many of us," Coggs said.

Coggs said throughout the years, a variety of hairstyles have shown cultural, religious, or political significance.

"The statements of expression that we are able to do through — and a culture we are allowed to celebrate — through our styles of hair are ones that should be left to us to determine and should not be utilized as a tool of discrimination in the workplace," said Coggs.

The measure the Common Council will consider is based on what’s known as the CROWN Act. CROWN stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. The push to approve such measures is led by the CROWN Coalition, founded by Dove, the National Urban League, Color of Change and the Western Center of Law & Poverty.

The coalition found that Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair, and their hair is 3.4 times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional.

Sherrie Williams is a Black hairstylist and the owner of Sherrie Cheriel’s Hair Gallery in Brookfield.

Similar to Alderwoman Coggs, Williams said hair is never “just hair” for Black people. She talks about how enslaved Black people would use their hair to transport food or map escape routes.

"Our ancestors hid food in their hair through braids. Our ancestors put maps on their hair through braids, trying to figure out how to escape through braids," Williams said. "They had patterns on their hair. Nah, it’s not just hair, it’s our heritage. It’s how we survive."

Williams has been doing hair at her shop for 22 years. She shared a story of one of her client’s experiences with racism at work because of her natural hair, and said she saw the impact it had on the client’s self-esteem.

"She wanted to go back to a relaxer, but I talked her out of it; I told her to embrace it," Williams said. "And as of today — she actually went to get counseling for it — she embraces her hair now, and she’s no longer being teased because she walks really bold with it."

Williams, who said she’s been natural for 9 years, thinks it vital to have confidence in how you wear your hair.

She said the Black Lives Matter movement, and the country’s reckoning with racism, are likely contributing to the push for measures such as the CROWN Act.

"This is just a stepping stone," Williams said. "This is not even a stair that we’re walking up; there’s so much more that needs to be done. But I do appreciate it. I appreciate the effort, but there’s more that needs to be done."

Williams said Black people have been fighting for change in so many areas for years, and now that we’re front and center, we are taking advantage of that.

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Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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