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Alaska House passes bill to eliminate hair discrimination, but deletes workplace protection

James Brooks
Alaska Beacon
Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, speaks on the floor of the Alaska Senate on Monday, May 2, 2022 at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau.

A Senate bill that aims to eliminate hair discrimination in the school and workplace passed the House on Tuesday, but in a drastically different form. An amendment deleted the portion relating to the workplace.

In the bill’s original intent, school boards and employers wouldn’t be allowed to adopt a dress code that: prohibits an individual from wearing a hairstyle that is associated with race; prohibits an individual from wearing a natural hairstyle, regardless of the student’s hair texture or type; or requires a student to permanently or semi-permanently alter the student’s natural hair. Natural hairstyle includes, but is not restricted to, braids, locs, twists, tight coils, afros, cornrows, and bantu knots.

(Editor's note: This story was originally published on Wednesday, May 11, 2022, by the Alaska Beacon. It is republished here with permission through Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.)

Senate Bill 174 “addresses an issue that many people endure in silence,” Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, said on the floor when the bill passed the Senate March 30. Wilson is a bill sponsor along with Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage.

“People choose to wear their natural hair for many reasons, including cultural connectiveness, protection of hair texture and growth, or just simply the preference. Whatever the reason, hairstyle has no correlation to workplace performance or professionalism,” Wilson said. The bill has an exception for health or safety laws, regulations, or ordinances.

On Monday, state representatives voted 23-17 to adopt an amendment that struck down the workplace provision. Nikiski Republican Rep. Ben Carpenter supported the amendment, saying it is “not the business of the Legislature” to define for employers what a professional look is.

“If we think that we have the purview to deal with defining what a professional look is in this case, then next year we can talk about what kind of pants somebody can wear, what kind of dress code needs to be, what kind of car you need to drive and how to park in your parking lot,” Carpenter said. “Where does it stop if the legislature thinks that it can reach down into a business and make decisions that that business owner has every right to?”

While a couple of representatives on Monday scoffed at having to discuss hairstyles on the floor, Alyssa Quintyne said hair discrimination is “damaging and it does impact every single aspect of our life.” Quintyne, Interior community organizing manager for the Alaska Center and an artist, testified from Fairbanks in support of the bill during committee hearings. For Quintyne, facing discrimination, including hair discrimination, is “just part of being Black in Alaska.”

Quintyne said during a House Education Committee meeting in February that she’s experienced hair discrimination while working in customer service, university departments, training facilities, and for various organizations. She’s been told to go to work with her hair straightened or not at all. As a student, Quintyne recounted being banned from classes because of her hair and these other experiences: “As a kid, from various teachers, I’ve been yanked by my hair and thrown down the stairs. I’ve had my hair cut and burned in the classrooms before. I’ve been tied to bus poles by my braids.”

Quintyne said nothing was ever done “to address the ignorance and the bigotry that these teachers and administrators apparently had for Black kids and their misunderstandings about our hair.”

That is until Senate Bill 174. “It gives me hope that maybe the pain that I and so many other people in the state have experienced can be prevented for another tiny little Black girl with cute little twists and beads in her hair, and she can fling and jingle and be happy and merry and feel good that she can take up as much space as she needs, that she’s celebrated and respected and welcomed.”

The House on Tuesday passed the bill with another amendment: School boards also wouldn’t be allowed to adopt a dress code that prohibits a student from wearing traditional Tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at a graduation ceremony. Tok Republican Rep. Mike Cronk said his Alaska Native daughters graduated wearing traditional dress. “It doesn’t matter to me what culture you are,” he said. “I want to make sure every culture has the ability to graduate and be able to be proud of who they are.”

The bill, as amended, passed the House 34-5. Next, it will go to the Senate for a concurrent vote.

About Alaska Beacon: Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.