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A new Oregon law will soon protect Black people against discrimination for their hairstyles

A CROWN Act campaign leader sticks a "Know Your Rights" guide in a door during  a canvassing event in Portland on Oct. 30, 2021.
Rae Dunnaville
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A CROWN Act campaign leader sticks a "Know Your Rights" guide in a door during a canvassing event in Portland on Oct. 30, 2021.

Starting Jan. 1, the CROWN Act will make it illegal in Oregon to discriminate against Black people for their hairstyles.

In just over a month, a new Oregon law will take effect, making it illegal in workplaces and education institutions to discriminate against Black people for their hairstyles.

And instead of celebrating and calling it a day, the law’s supporters are working across the state to make sure people know what’s changed, and why.

LaNicia Duke has lived in Tillamook County, on the Oregon coast, for seven years. In the past, she’s noticed some legislation that seems to have Portland in mind, and not relevant for her community. But the recently-approved CROWN Act is different, she said. And when she heard about it, she wanted to get involved both as a rural Oregonian, and also as a Black woman.

“It is very relevant to people,” Duke said. “But I also think we have to stop dictating laws without educating people on the why.”

Duke is part of an effort in a number of Oregon communities to raise awareness about the CROWN Act.

The legislation is aimed at protecting Black Oregonians from discrimination for wearing braids, twists, protective hairstyles, headwraps, or accessories in their hair. Under the law, people who believe they’ve experienced race-based hair discrimination can file complaints in schools and workplaces.

But advocates say there’s still a lot of work to do before Jan. 1, and even after the bill takes effect.

First, there’s the state rules and policies that need to change in order to adhere to the new law. Last month, the State Board of Education had a first reading of the rule changes and proposals that need to happen under the new law. The rule revisions include adding a description of “protective hairstyles” and changing language around dress code enforcement. Passage of the CROWN Act also means the creation of a new rule aimed at limiting school districts from becoming members of organizations that don’t have “equity-focused policies.

Those draft rules could still change ahead of a second reading in the future.

Second, there’s the work to spread the word across Oregon about what the bill means for students, families, and school leaders as the CROWN Act takes effect..

Forward Together, a group that campaigned for the CROWN Act, is leading that work in Portland. At a recent canvassing event last month, they knocked on doors in Northeast Portland to share a Know Your Rights guide for the CROWN Act.

Campaign volunteer Rae Dunnaville was part of that group. Talking to people on the street, she said some knew about the legislation, but didn’t know it had passed.

“What became clear to me was, there is definitely a lot more community education that we need to do to make sure our community knows that this has happened, and now we have this added layer of protection,” Dunnaville said.

In addition to students and education employees, Dunnaville also wants to get the word out to barbershop and beauty shop owners, so they can share news of the law with their customers.

“More than ever students need this protection in schools, more than ever, workers need these protections in the workplace,” Dunnaville said.

California, Oregon’s southern neighbor, was the first state to pass CROWN Act legislation in 2019, with several states and cities around the country following suit with similar bills. The Oregon House passed the CROWN Act in 2020, but it died in the Senate at the end of a chaotic session. It ultimately passed in Oregon back in June. According to the CROWN Act coalition, a group of national organizations, 14 states total have passed similar legislation, including Washington.

Outreach is happening outside of Portland too. Forward Together Oregon field organizer Emma Martinez said the group has started partnering with Unite Oregon to reach students in the Rogue Valley, and the group is working with LaNicia Duke in Tillamook County, who is building a network for Black people living in rural parts of Oregon.

Throughout her community, Duke said she’s working on listening to questions about the CROWN Act and understanding how people in other states with similar legislation have handled implementation.

In rural Oregon, where schools may have small numbers of Black students, she wants to make sure everyone — from school administrators to students — understands why the CROWN Act exists, and the purpose it serves.

“We will be asking school districts, who may have less than 10 Black kids in their entire school district, to be worried about this CROWN Act law, without explaining why,” Duke said.

She wants to help explain the why, for schools, and especially for students.

“I think it’s important for Black students across our state, no matter where they live, to know that they have support,” she said.

Duke also wants to make share information with students and families who may not have anything to do with the CROWN Act, or not know about protective hairstyles, or why it’s wrong to change a Black student’s hairstyle without their consent.

“It really is shameful, I think, that we’re having these conversations in 2021, but I also know there’s a lot of, still, lack of knowledge and ignorance, sometimes willful, but sometimes not, in not understanding the differences culturally, because who teaches us that stuff?”

She said that doesn’t mean excusing ignorance, or misbehavior, but correcting it.

“We’ve got to get to a place where people just respect other people,” Duke said.

When it comes to knowing when the legislation has been implemented successfully in Oregon, it will likely be hard to tell. Organizers and volunteers say there won’t be a metric or statistic that will show this bill is working.

For Martinez, success means understanding: that school communities understand and can better support Black students, and that Black students and their families know about the CROWN Act and the rights the law provides.

“We’ll know that we’ve been successful…when individual schools and school districts are following the appropriate procedures, policies when discrimination happen, and that there’s healing for Black students and their families,” Martinez wrote in an email to OPB.

For Dunnaville, she doesn’t want to see any more stories in news nationally about students getting in trouble, or kept from participating in school activities because of their hair.

“Not because it’s not being covered, but because it’s not happening anymore,” she said.

Like Martinez, both Duke and Dunnaville want to raise awareness as Jan. 1 gets closer.

“This is not a frivolous issue,” Dunnaville said.

“This is very important, because the way we show up in our lives really does matter, the way we’re perceived matters, the way we feel about ourselves matters. I think that this law is a step in the right direction in ensuring Black people have the ability to just be who we are.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Elizabeth Miller