On March 4, 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed HB 1514/SB 50 into law, which expands the Virginia Human Rights Act’s definition of racial discrimination to include traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles. Virginia’s law will become effective on July 1, 2020.

Virginia now joins California, New York, and New Jersey and localities including Montgomery County, Maryland, New York City, and Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio, that have passed hair discrimination laws or issued hair discrimination enforcement guidance. While these regulations vary slightly, they generally prohibit banning, limiting or restricting natural Black hair, as well as hairstyles associated with Black people, including but not limited to Afros, braids, twists, dreadlocks, and knots. Their stated aim is to combat the historical discriminatory racial impact of grooming and appearance policies.

“Hair Love” Becomes a Nationwide Trend

When producers Karen Rupert Toliver and Matthew A. Cherry accepted the Academy Award for Animated Short Film for Hair Love, they explained that one of the goals of the film was to normalize Black hair. Cherry also took his moment in the spotlight to highlight the importance of passing the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act in all 50 states.

While four states have enacted hair discrimination laws over the past year, similar legislation is currently pending in over 20 states:

Ohio has also introduced the CROWN Act, though its bill extends only to private and public schools in Ohio.

At the federal level, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) introduced legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of hair texture or hairstyle under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act.

Next Steps

Like their counterparts in other jurisdictions with operative hair discrimination laws, Virginia employers should review standards and appearance policies to be inclusive of ethnic or cultural practices related to hair and hairstyles. Employers should train managers on grooming and EEO policies to ensure compliance with the Virginia Human Rights Act, as amended, in hiring and day-to-day workforce management. Employers should also consider whether diversity or unconscious bias training is appropriate for their workplaces. Effective training can help ensure that employers create and appropriately interpret neutral grooming standards that promote both company business interests and an inclusive workplace environment.

In light of this legislative trend, employers across the country should consider revisiting and potentially updating grooming standards and training practices. Adopting nationwide practices consistent with the CROWN legislation can serve as both a proactive compliance step and a leap towards making the workplace more inclusive.