What does it mean to ‘look professional,’ really? This image — suits, pencil skirts, rigorously controlled coiffures — is based on a purely arbitrary set of cultural precepts dictated centuries ago by capitalism’s ruling class, and we’re starting to see it break down at long last. It’s not just that the average office has grown more amenable to casual button-downs and jeans; there’s a larger ideological shift taking place, reorienting public ideas about who gets to represent the picture of a working person.
An item in Variety this morning details a bold effort from a coalition of actors hoping to rewrite the narrative on appearance, their focus being on the politics of hair. A petition 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members strong has been delivered to the Senate, urging them to pass the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, which should make the acronym CROWNH, but that’s neither here nor there) and protect the rights of Black performers who just want to look how they want to look.
With an all-star lineup of signatories including Kerry Washington, Zoe Kravitz, Rosario Dawson, Niecy Nash-Betts, and Don Cheadle, the new legislation would address a prejudice that’s hardened into industry practice over a course of decades. In a business where judging a person on their looks is fair game, such natural hairstyles as dreadlocks, curls, Afros, two-puffs, and anything else outside the white norm of high-polish, flattened thinness can bar an actor from jobs playing white-collar characters. (Or worse, see them remanded to auditions for insultingly retrograde “ghetto” roles.)
The CROWN Act would make discrimination on the basis of hairstyle illegal, in keeping with a wider trend sweeping American life that’s already seen some schools revising dress codes that unfairly forbade natural hair. The letter attached to the petition makes clear that this isn’t just a Tinseltown concern, but a national conversation, stating that “Implicit biases toward Black workers and students based on their hair texture, style and color are still the norm in federal offices and public education.”
The actors’ union hopes to lead the charge into a saner future, where it’s understood that there’s no correlation between how one chooses to wear their hair and their ability to effectively do their job. And because reality is downstream of culture, they could very well make a change; people assume that whatever they see on TV is normal, and so with enough time, we may advance to a new status quo under which no one bats an eye at a scientist in Bantu knots.
Published 20 Oct 2022
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