OLYMPIA — Washington could become the fourth state in the nation to ban discrimination based on hair style or texture — following New Jersey, New York and California — should a bill introduced in the state House eventually garner the governor’s signature.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, said the legislation was partially inspired by the 2019 controversy in which a New Jersey high school student was forced to cut off his dreadlocks in order to compete in a wrestling match. Similar stories of schools banning hairstyles more frequently worn by Black people, or barring students with such hairstyles from graduation, have popped up across the country.
House Bill 2602 would expand the Washington Law Against Discrimination so the term “race” includes “traits historically associated or perceived to be associated with race.” The bill specifically cites Afros, braids, locks and twists as hairstyles protected under the law.
California’s law, passed in 2019, hinged on research that found Black women to be 50% more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair and 80% more likely to change their hair in order to “fit in at the office.”
When asked about how the law would impact state law enforcement, Morgan said that agencies would most likely follow military policies, many of which already allow protected hairstyles.
In public testimony Tuesday, Morgan described current discrimination of natural hair as a continuation of historical racism.
“In order to gain employment, Black women have had to assimilate into white culture,” Morgan said, noting that relaxing or chemically straightening Black hair is dangerous and can lead to chemical burns.
RaShelle Davis, senior civil and human-rights policy adviser for Gov. Jay Inslee, testified in favor of the bill, and described having people suggest she change her natural hairstyle in order to be more “professional.”
“As a Black woman I understand that when people say ‘it needs to be more professional,’ that means ‘it needs to be more white,'” Davis said.
Former KING 5 news anchor Jenna Hanchard also testified in favor of the bill, reading to the committee a letter she received last year from a viewer who called her natural hair “ridiculous.”
“Controlling and taming Blackness is an all-American pastime,” Hanchard said. “This is the systematic change required to acknowledge that hairstyles associated with my Blackness are not a threat.”
Sharon Ortiz, executive director of the state’s Human Rights Commission, who testified neither in support or opposition of the legislation, told the committee that the more defined civil-rights laws are, the more effective they become.
Ortiz also pointed out that the bill would protect Native Americans who keep their hair long for religious or cultural reasons. She drew parallels between the banning of cultural hairstyles and the racist history of banning indigenous cultures and languages.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has touched on the issue of hair discrimination as well. This month, SHRM recommended that employers review their policies on dress codes, employee appearance and hairstyles given new discrimination laws.
HB 2602 is sponsored by 36 representatives, including two Republicans. No one on Tuesday spoke against the bill. The bill is scheduled for a committee vote on Friday, which will determine if the bill goes to the House floor.