Michele Watley is weary of social and economic ramifications of people intent on discriminating against others based on style or texture of hair.
She said evidence existed that women and men wearing their hair in a natural manner with braids or twists were targeted with unreasonable personal attacks and could benefit from modification of Kansas laws to appropriately respond to race-based discrimination.
"All Kansans should be allowed to celebrate their natural beauty without fear or judgment or consequence," said Watley, founder of Shirley's Kitchen Cabinet, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to lifting voices of black women through education and advocacy. "It's a bill. We're not going to change the world, right? It's a start."
The bill heard Tuesday by the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee was opposed by the Kansas Chamber and declared unnecessary by the Kansas Association of School Boards.
Kristi Brown, a lobbyist with the Kansas Chamber, said the legislation could undermine an employer's dress code or jeopardize safety of workers. KASB's lobbyist, Leah Fliter, said existing law would shield people against consequences of racial discrimination based on issues of hairstyle.
"We also caution that specifically enumerating characteristics such as hairstyles in statute can lead to an assumption that the law only applies to those characteristics," Fliter said.
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, introduced Senate Bill 250 and spoke on behalf of the legislation by drawing upon old and new examples of how black people were unfairly treated for the manner in which they chose to style their hair.
In middle school, she said, some of her classmates were given failing grades in gym class for declining to swim because special products required to groom their hair weren't at school. A black teenager in Texas is fighting an in-school suspension and a warning that he won't be able to walk in his graduation ceremony unless he cuts his dreadlocks, she said.
"Or, maybe you heard about another student who was told by the referee that he must shave off his hair in order to participate in a wrestling meet or else forfeit," Faust-Goudeau said. "I cried just seeing the pain and humiliation on this young man's face."
In that 2018 incident in New Jersey, the white referee's decision led to an impromptu haircut in the gym. The black student went on to win the match.
Kenya Cox, executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and president of the Kansas NAACP, said both organizations back changes to Kansas law after receiving a stream of complaints in recent years about comments and harassment about hairstyles.
"A black woman is 80% more likely to change her natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work," Cox said. "Black women are 50% more likely to be sent home or know of a black woman sent home from the workplace because of her hair."
Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Baxter Springs Republican on the Senate committee, said he was concerned about who would define historical traits of hairstyle for purposes of sorting out allegations of discrimination. The committee took no action on the bill.
"It's highly subjective and subject to interpretation," Hilderbrand said.
In 2019, California became the first state to enact the Crown Act into law banning employers and schools from discriminating against such hairstyles as Afros, braids, twists and locks. Members of Congress in Washington, D.C., are seeking adoption of the act at the federal level to clarify that discrimination based on race or national origin encompasses hair texture and style.