Respect makes a difference.
And we’re talking about true respect here, not just barely listening to a person, nodding and claiming that you heard them. We’re talking about truly listening, about putting yourself in another person’s shoes and — for a moment or two at least — understanding them at the deepest level you can.
That’s the respect that makes a difference and changes relationships. And that’s the kind of respect needed in discussions of Senate Bill 250, a proposal that would modify state laws barring race-based discrimination to explicitly include such natural characteristics as hair style.
Evidence exists, said the activists who testified last week, that black people wearing braids or twists face personal attacks or unwarranted attention.
According to Kenya Cox, executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and president of the Kansas NAACP, “A black woman is 80% more likely to change her natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work. 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.”
Reasonable parties might disagree on whether SB 250 itself is needed. The Kansas Chamber and Kansas Association of School Boards — not always natural allies — both testified in opposition, for different reasons. Both of Cox’s organizations back the bill, as does the nonpartisan Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet organization.
But that disagreement shouldn’t be a reason not to listen. It shouldn’t be an excuse not to take the stories and experiences of other people to heart.
As Wichita Democrat Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau told the hearing, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter: “In middle school ... 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.”
These are real experiences from real people of color. Their stories might not be familiar to white people, especially if they don’t have friends or family who can educate them. That’s why testimony from Cox or Faust-Goudeau shouldn’t just be heard — it should be understood. It should be empathized with.
Maybe the law should be changed. Maybe it shouldn’t. But the voices of those seeking change must be appreciated.