Member Update: Let’s Talk Hair!

On Friday, April 23rd, 2021, at an Equity Special Council Meeting, council approved the “Hair Texture as a Protected Characteristic” resolution, which mandates Equity to bring to all negotiations going forward, the addition of “hair texture” to the protected characteristics in the anti-discrimination clause. One of the resolution’s co-authors, Equity Western Principal Councilor and EEOC Vice Chair Barbara N. Roberts, shares her experience about the road to this historic moment.

Let’s Talk Hair!  

Dear Equity Members,

I am so honored to have co-authored, along with my fellow Equal Employment Opportunity chairs, “Hair Texture as a Protected Characteristic.” By unanimous vote, council passed the motion to add “hair texture” to the protected characteristics enumerated in the anti-discrimination clause of all Equity collective bargaining agreements going forward. This significant achievement could not have been possible without the support of our Equity membership, council and staff. 

As my fellow councilors discussed the motion, I held my breath and looked back on this journey.

The CROWN Act  

In 2019, Governor Gavin Newsome signed The CROWN Act into law. This legislation was written by California State Senator Holly Mitchell and represents an explosive shift in the American workplace for Black hair. CROWN stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” and the act is now law in ten states, including New York. It prohibits race-based hair discrimination in both employment and educational spaces. It also expands the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) definition of race to be “inclusive of traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to hair texture and protective hair styles." Protective hairstyles are defined as braids, twists or locs and it applies to employers that have five or more workers. This all means that race-specific expression of hair textures and styles, including braids, locs, cornrows, twists and Bantu knots, are now protected by law. 

 The passage of The CROWN Act in so many states, and the ongoing work of activists to make it federal law, inspired me to bring Equity into this movement. 

 Before the CROWN Act, the definition of race used in state statutes was limited to “ancestry, color, ethnic group identification and ethnic background." Employees who challenged and advocated for better policies that protected their natural hairstyles were dependent on the federal court interpretations of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an unreliable and unfair process. 

Hair Discrimination in Theatre

In my 30 years as a member of Equity and a several-term councilor, I have both heard from colleagues about discriminatory practices against Black hair and experienced this racism firsthand. This can manifest as lack of sensitivity, understanding and knowledge of the value of Black hair, or worse, blatantly fall into the stereotypical dichotomy of "good hair" or "bad hair." This is an example of damage caused by white supremacy, because hair-related microaggressions and discriminatory practices against my fellow Black artists often result in self-blame, shame and feelings of powerlessness. Furthermore, the burden of this dehumanizing treatment causes not only emotional distress, but at times physical harm and financial hardship.

Both historically and now, Black actors have been painfully subjected to unfair hair and wig practices within the theatre industry. Employers have consistently provided complete hair services to white actors (and actors with straight hair) while neglecting to provide equivalent services to Black actors (and those with textured hair). Hair staff on productions often lack knowledge regarding styling, tools and products as well as the skill set necessary to maintain highly textured hair. As a result, while their primarily white colleagues' hair and makeup needs are entirely met by their employer, Black actors are regularly burdened with the responsibility for maintaining their own hair on productions with little to no financial or artistic support.

A theatre production includes both hair design, the vision for the final look, as well as execution and maintenance. All too often, Black actors receive someone else's vision, and are responsible for the execution. Many employers have facially neutral hair policies that do not acknowledge that different textures have different needs, so in order to make a creative team's vision come to life, Black actors are expected to research and identify a hair care professional outside of the workplace, provide their own transportation to and from services offsite and outside of working hours and to pay for services rendered upfront.

There can be real consequences for failing to fulfill an employer's responsibilities for them. For example, a design may require that a character be clean shaven, but an actor may not be able to shave every day with a razor— perhaps their skin reacts a certain way, or their beard grows differently. If they come to work with a beard shadow, they may be written up for not for not following directions. If an employer instead works with an actor, the worker can consent to a hair design, or give input based on their individual characteristics.


Both historically and now, Black actors have been painfully subjected to unfair hair and wig practices within the theatre industry.


A New Way Forward 

As council considered this resolution, I held my breath— not in anticipation, but with hope and faith, with the knowledge that the time had come for anti-hair-discrimination to takes its place in our contract language. 

The resolution passed, and I expressed a sigh of relief, and then tears of joy. In my thirty years as an Equity member, I have seen significant changes to our collective bargaining agreements that strengthened our union for the betterment of all members. I thought of how this union supports its Black members. This resolution affirms that forcing Black actors to divest themselves of their racial and cultural identity to adapt to predominantly white workplaces because of their hair texture is unfair treatment based on race and therefore constitutes workplace discrimination. It is encouraging and empowering us to continue this, not only with this resolution, but also pushing to make the CROWN Act into federal law. 

Without the work of activists, the “Hair Texture as a Protected Characteristic” resolution would have never come to pass. I am so happy for this progress, and I am truly grateful to the members across the country who have shared their experiences to help create this change. Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. This is for you and by you. The prioritization of Black hair at Equity’s first-ever national convention bolsters my belief that a future world, respectful of natural hair is not only possible, but inevitable. I am excited see how we grow together! 

It takes grace to remain in unkind situations. And yet sometimes, this very grace — along with a lot of hard work and the power of a union — can lead to liberation.

With much respect and gratitude,  

Barbara N. Roberts  

Western Principal Councilor  

Equity held a “Let’s Talk Hair!” webinar on June 30, 2021.


The prioritization of Black hair at Equity’s first-ever national convention bolsters my belief that a future world, respectful of natural hair is not only possible, but inevitable.


PS. Until then, I’ll leave you with this:  

  

My hair with its flexible way   

Decides what it will be today  

Maybe it’ll be loose, full and buoyant  

Or maybe it will be curly with a kink on it  

 

And waves moving thru it  

Folding back into a thick afro puff   

bursting open with a collage  

Of all kinds of textures and stuff    

 

Swinging and swaying in the noon day sun   

wild, fun, and free  

liberating me  

Making my visions bright   

As day moves into night  

 

Or maybe a corn row style  

That lasts for awhile  

Swirling to the left side  

whipping it’s way into bantu knots  

Representing with pride  

 

Maybe it’ll transform into a 3 twist braid  

Perched on top of my head right side fade  

Or maybe give into a finger comb   

With every strand going where it belongs  

Landing home   

 

Crowning me with all its Glory  

No Guidance, just flair  

My Black and Beautiful Natural Hair   

 

—By Barbara Roberts, May 2021