Massachusetts Adds “Natural Hairstyle” as a Protected Category to Anti-Discrimination Laws

The list of characteristics protected by Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws has become a bit longer with the addition of “natural hairstyle” to long-standing items such as race, gender, disability, and color. Via a bill known as the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN Act for short, the legislature extended anti-discrimination protections in employment, schools and places of public accommodation for hairstyles that are tied to racial identity. Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill into law on July 26, 2022.

The legislature was motivated by a finding that certain hairstyles are physical traits that are central to individual dignity, autonomy and personhood. When those styles are reflective of racial characteristics, targeting them is racial discrimination, it concluded. As a result, it found, “discrimination against Black students, employees and persons participating in public accommodations because of their hair texture and the way in which their hair grows and is styled is illegal discrimination.” The new law emanates from a history of this type of misconduct. It defines “natural hairstyle” as “natural hair and protective hairstyles, which shall include, but not be limited to protective hairstyles such as braids, locs , twists and other formations.”

In the employment context, the statute means that employers and employment agencies must treat natural hairstyles the same way they treat race, gender and the like. They can’t advertise or use a form of job application that directly or indirectly inquires about natural hairstyles, nor can they make work decisions based on protected hair any more than they can based on other of the immutable characteristics protected by the state’s anti-discrimination statute, Mass. Gen. L. ch. 151B. Massachusetts is the 17th state to enact a hairstyle protection law. Both the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which handles employment and public accommodation issues, and the department of elementary and secondary education are expected to issue regulations on this topic at some future date.