A Missouri House committee heard testimony Tuesday on three bills that would ban discrimination based on hair texture in some settings.
Three Black state lawmakers -- Democratic Reps. Raychel Proudie of Ferguson, LakeySha Bosley of St. Louis and Ashley Bland Manlove of Kansas City -- presented versions of a national bill called the CROWN Act to the House Special Committee on Urban Issues on Tuesday.
"Ultimately, we want to make sure that the children, our students, taxpayers aren't being discriminated against by how their natural hair grows out of their head," Proudie said.
The lawmakers' push is part of a national movement to embrace hair texture and styles associated with race, such as locks and coily hair.
In 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, before the bill ultimately died in a Senate filibuster.
Twenty states have adopted legislation to ban hair discrimination, and 24 states are considering bills to address the issue, according to the CROWN Act's website.
Proudie's legislation would only affect state-funded educational institutions, but Bosley and Manlove sought to ban discrimination in the workforce as well.
A bill filed last year by Proudie also addressed workplace discrimination, but she said Tuesday that concerns about safety in some sectors led her to narrow her bill to focus exclusively on education. She indicated she would look for workplace protections after guaranteeing them for schools.
"There have been conversations about making it only for schools so that our children aren't (discriminated against), and then we can fight over the other issues about job discrimination," Proudie said." But I push back on that because it is black women in their jobs who are being discriminated against as well."
Worries about safety were once again raised Tuesday, but Proudie said those concerns have been addressed since she presented her bill last year. This year's version allows classes, such as woodshop or culinary arts, to require hairnets for safety.
A similar bill passed the House unanimously last year, but it never came up for a vote in the Senate.
Kansas City and St. Louis have already enacted local laws banning the discrimination of hair texture.
Public testimony centered personal experiences, such as not being able to find a job with an afro hairstyle.
Kaylee Adams, a student at the University of Missouri Kansas City, said she felt her hair was "too much work" and "too different" as a child growing up in a predominantly white school.
"When I was complimented on my hair, it was often because me and my mom spent four-plus hours getting it pin straight to look like the other students," she said.
A statistic from personal care brand Dove's 2021 CROWN Research Study for Girls shared by Bland Manlove shows that Adams' story is not unique. Sixty-six percent of Black girls in predominantly white schools report hair discrimination compared to 45 percent of Black girls overall.
Perception Institute, a research center with a focus on discrimination, studied the perception of Black women's hair in 2016. The white women surveyed rated Black women's natural hair as less beautiful, sexy and professional than straight hair.
Black women reported feeling higher rates of anxiety about their hair than the white women studied. One in five Black women said they felt pressured to straighten their hair for work -- double the rate of white women.
All three bill sponsors said they felt that pressure.
Bosley said someone in the Capitol told her to straighten her hair, but she intentionally wore her hair in an afro.
"I want young girls who see me and who go on my site when they look up their representative to see someone who looks like them," she said.
The committee had few questions for the sponsors, apart from their concerns about safety.
Rep. Brad Banderman, R-St. Clair, asked if the legislation might lead to lawsuits when people with natural hair do not get offered opportunities, perhaps for other reasons.
"Are we opening ourselves up, in a broad sense, to lots of litigation on an issue that may not have had anything to do with that person's hair?" he said.
Proudie said plaintiffs always have to prove their claims in discrimination cases.
Rep. David Casteel, R-High Ridge, asked about hairstyles that include hair pieces.
"You guys have mentioned extensions and wigs," he said. "Are we just talking about natural hair or are we talking about alterations?"
The sponsors said that wigs and hair extensions are part of protective styles, or hairstyles that protect the natural curls, covered by the legislation.
The committee did not take action Tuesday, but chairman Rep. Mark Sharp, D-Kansas City, indicated future action.
"I believe that members of this committee will be dedicated to trying to find whatever version will be best," he said. "I'm looking forward to working with you all."
The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.