On June 30, Equity’s diversity and inclusion department hosted “Let’s Talk Hair,” a discussion of the context of the April resolution passed by council to include hair texture as a protected characteristic in union contracts.
Equity Western Principal Councilor and Equal Employment Opportunity Committee Vice Chair Barbara Roberts introduced the participants: Holly J. Mitchell from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, dramatist Ruben Echoles, Equity Senior Business Representative Calandra Hackney and Equity Diversity & Inclusion Strategist Bliss Griffin.
Griffin began by explaining how hair can relate to a legal definition of discrimination, that because certain hair textures and styles are associated with racial characteristics, lack of respect or resources in the workplace are a violation of a worker’s rights.
Hackney explained that going forward Equity is going to be explicitly negotiating hair texture into antidiscrimination language in union contracts. That means that employers will be required to put time and money into ensuring that members receive the proper care for their hair, regardless of race.
Griffin urged members to know their rights, and speak up for themselves: “Our responsibility too is to make sure that we have what we need to do our job well, and that are not treated differently such that there's a different impact in terms of finances, in terms of time, in terms of your psyche and emotions."
Hackney noted that many workers are afraid as being seen as “difficult” to worth with, and Bliss added that part of that self-advocacy is going to the Equity for union support.
Roberts then explained the CROWN Act, the legislation currently passing in several states to prohibit hair discrimination in educational settings and the workplace.
Griffin added how the CROWN Act operates on the assumption hairstyles are irrelevant to one's ability to work or learn, but that the theatre industry is a bit different.
“Your look has everything to do with your ability to do your job— that is, to tell the story that we're crafting,” she said. “So I was really excited that Barbara brought this in for discussion with the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee, because it was important that Actors' Equity, put it in its own anti-discrimination, language. And then, to particularly identify the kinds of hair-based discrimination that happens in our space."
As to examples of theatre-based hair discrimination, Echols shared several examples, like actors being told that their hair would not fit under wigs or instructed to cut their dreadlocks as conditions of employment.
“As a wig designer, sometimes my hands are tied. I'm here for you, I'm here to support you,” he added. "But I don't have any authority so I'm grateful to know that Actors' Equity is there with support and that I have another tool to help transition in those spaces.”
Hackney and Griffin spoke about the unfairness of being expected to do extra labor, and sometimes incur extra costs, for research or hair maintenance, and that employers need to understand, and anticipate, that some hair care practices are more expensive than others.
“It was all about ‘the show must go on, the show must go on, the show must go on,’” reflected Roberts on earlier in her career. "It was embedded into my psyche. And at all costs, the show must go on. So, of course, when concerns came up, and particularly to hair, I knew I had to take care of it."
Griffin fielded a question from the audience about the role of unions for hair and makeup technicians in ensuring better working conditions.
“This is a call to more responsible management of your employees, person to employers,” she explained. “We're saying ultimately: 'Employer, you are responsible, and our members have consistently seen these negative outcomes having to do with hair discrimination. It needs to be fixed.’ And like everything else in our CBA's [collective bargaining agreements], it's not our position to tell you how to fix it. It's our responsibility to make sure that you do."
As a technician, Echols spoke about ways someone in his role can make a workplace more comfortable for artists, and that includes collaborating with them actively on what they need to feel safe in the environment:
“What do you need in the dressing room for your prep? Do you need someone to assist you with prep if you’re doing wigs? Is there a product that you need, like if we have, if we've used certain hairsprays?”
Hackney also outlined the union’s process for dealing with discrimination, from the initial report to the potential ensuing investigation.
"Employer, you are responsible, and our members have consistently seen these negative outcomes having to do with hair discrimination. It needs to be fixed."
Supervisor Mitchell joined the conversation, sharing background on getting the CROWN Act passed in California before becoming a more national movement.
“We know that it's a movement and that there will never we will never go back,” she said.
Another audience question asked specifics about how much of a hair care process is a producer’s responsibility. Griffin and Hackney emphasized that if an employer changes a member’s hair, they are responsible for restoring it to its original condition as well. Another question brought up the fact that members need to be proactive in communicating with their employers about their hair needs, including any changes they are making at home that might affect how their hair needs to be treated at work. Another comment from the audience expressed concern about becoming a “practice head” for tending to Black hair as the theatre industry reopened.
Panelists shared their closing thoughts. Echols offered to be a resource going forward, and Hackney urged members to not hesitate to contact their union.
“This is so much about consent," concluded Griffin. "We particularly are having this conversation through the lens of the needs with people needs of people with textured hair, because the assumption has always been, ‘I can change this thing that is so core to your humanity. My show goes on at all costs without your consent.’ And this organization has decided that, that that is discrimination, that it is unsafe. And we're looking at our contracts in a way that no longer allows it.”
Members who wish to access the full video or transcript of the event can do so through the member portal.