Supporters rally in favor of CROWN Act


Douglas Harding

Community members, activists and lawmakers in favor of the CROWN Act gathered at the state capitol March 13 to demonstrate support of the bill to end hair discrimination.

Community members, activists and lawmakers in favor of the CROWN Act marched at the state capitol March 13 to demonstrate support of the bill to end hair discrimination.

CROWN stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair.

Beckley Human Rights Commissioner, Tarsha Bolt, spoke of her personal experience with hair discrimination.

In her speech, she said she realized the magnitude of the issue in December 2019 when her son was told by his basketball coach at Woodrow Wilson High School that he could not play in the game unless he could come onto the court without dreadlocks.

Bolt told the story of meeting her son outside of the gymnasium where he had been trying to brush his hairstyle out to play in the game.

“He had a pick, and he was trying to rip out his dreads,” Bolt said. “When you have dreadlocks, it is not as simple as taking them out. Dreads are a permanent hairstyle that is a lifetime commitment — it’s not as easy as combing out dreads.”

She said that unlike braids, which are easy to undo, dreadlocks are “a whole different ballgame.”

Bolt said the coach told her the reason her son could not play in the game was because he needed his hair to “look neat.”

Bolt said that after this incident, she made a Facebook post that garnered attention within her community, specifically between Black families who realized they all had their own stories of hair discrimination.

She said the post reached many people outside of West Virginia and further shed light on the systemic issue.

“Our ethnic hairstyles are being attacked,” Bolt said. “People have certain preconceived ideas of the way your hair looks — ’you are not acceptable,’ ‘you are not decent’ and ‘you must be a thug.”

Thaddeus Breckenridge, who also attended and graduated from Woodrow Wilson, cited the contract students interested in playing men’s basketball were required to sign and adhere to that stated the young men could have “no outside hairstyles, only a close cut. Mohawks are acceptable.”

Community members, activists and lawmakers in favor of the CROWN Act gathered at the state capitol March 13 to demonstrate support of the bill to end hair discrimination. (Isabella Robinson)

“I did not understand until my senior year of high school when the warmup playlist changed from what we originally decided to play,” Breckenridge said, remembering incidents pertaining to his experience on the Woodrow Wilson basketball team.

“When I was approached by the franchisee for Chick-Fil-A who said, ‘that music does not represent our community,’ I started to understand the exploitation of the Black body in those predicted places — as a uniform, as a workplace, as a school environment, as a place to just walk down the street.” Breckenridge said this made him uncomfortable as a senior at Woodrow Wilson and made him even more uncomfortable when he met Bolt’s son.

“I was hurt because I felt that I did not do the things that I should have done when I was in school to make sure that it was easier for those who came behind me,” Breckenridge said. “Then, to see the humiliation [of Bolt’s son] in pictures, to see the things that his peers were saying to him in his classrooms and the things people in the community were saying like, ‘he should have just sucked it up,’ and gone back to enslaving himself mentally and physically and emotionally.”

Breckenridge said that listeners need to understand that the passage of the CROWN Act is a demand, not a request. Chakera Evans, organizer for Our Future WV, acted as a host of the event, introducing each speaker with commentary on the issue.

“So many times here in the mountain state, we talk about what we can do to keep our young people here, and we talk about jobs — we talk about economics,” Evans said. “A lot of what we do not talk about is the messages sometimes our young people are seeing that say, ‘you are not welcome here.”

Evans said a way to keep young people in this state is to ensure that the environment they are living and working in is welcoming, and the passage of the CROWN Act is a step in the right direction.

“Sometimes our young people are leaving because they are looking for a space where they can bring their whole selves and have their whole selves represented,” Evans said. “The issue of hair discrimination is just one way we tell our young people that they are not welcome here and that if they want to wear their hair like they want to, they can take it to some other city – and there they go.”

Evans said that it is important to let the young people of West Virginia know that they are valued and wanted in this state’s workplaces and schools.

Del. Danielle Walker, the CROWN Act’s leading sponsor, began her speech by citing a popular apartheid-era method of hair discrimination.

“I wonder who came up with the pencil test,” Walker said.

Walker said the pencil test is a way to discriminate against black men and women based on their hairstyle.

“To place a pencil through some strands of hair, and if it falls out, you are white,” Walker said. “If it stays in, you are Black.”

Del. Walker discussed the ways this form of discrimination has evolved and encouraged her colleagues to pass the CROWN Act.

“Today we say, ‘No More,” Walker said. “The only pencil test we need to see in the people’s house is that we place [the CROWN Act] on the agenda. Let’s see those pencils start moving, and you pressing those green buttons,” she said.

Walker said that the way her colleagues vote on the CROWN Act says a lot about their character.

“A vote no is saying that you are a racist,” Walker said. “A vote no is the brink of racism, and I do not care what adjective you put in front of it: Where there is racism, there is a racist.”

Isabella Robinson can be contacted at [email protected].