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Pass The CROWN: Why This Exec Is On A Mission To End Black Hair Discrimination

"I see this as an opportunity to redefine what society declares is professional, because who we are is professional."

Business

OK, so, boom. In 2005, India Arie and Akon linked up to create a new negro national anthem that firmly reminded America that Black people cannot be defined by their hair and fifteen years later, it is abundantly clear that Karen and Chad never got the memo.

I'll never forget when I was 16-years-old, attending a Catholic school in Augusta, Georgia, when a teacher told me that my twists were too "ethnic" and that straighter hair made me look more "ladylike" in front of another group of students. I felt angry, hurt, and embarrassed by his not-so-micro-microaggression and had no means of retaliation or recourse. If you or someone you love is also Black AF, I'm sure that they, too, have had an experience like mine and it is for this reason that Dove and The CROWN Coalition have linked up to put an end to hair discrimination for good.

Unilever's Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of North American Beauty and Personal Care, Esi Eggleston Bracey, told xoNecole:

"We know as black women, we wear our hair in many ways that are expressions of us. So we define our own professionalism. Our braids, my twists, my locs, my Afro, when I've worn [those styles], those have all been professional because I've worn those in professional settings."

Courtesy of Esi Eggleston Bracey

One year ago today, the CROWN (which stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act was signed into legislation in California, making race-related hair discrimination illegal and triggered a domino effect that has since led seven states to follow suit. The law, initially introduced by Senator Holly J. Mitchell last January, has now been introduced as a federal bill that has the support of more than 70,000 petitioners nationwide and according to The CROWN Coalition, this is only the beginning. As of today, July 3, is officially National CROWN Day.

xoNecole recently chatted with Esi to talk more about how laws like The CROWN Act can be life-changing to the professional narrative Black men and women experience nationwide and, honey, it was a word.

Here's what she had to say.

*Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Here at xoNecole, we are owned by a Black woman. We are an office of Black women and hair discrimination is not a thing here. And discrimination is not tolerated at all. If there is someone who feels that they have had a discriminatory experience, what should they do to take action?

Esi Eggleston Bracey: Help us make The CROWN Act law in all 50 states so that we can all be protected because right now we only have that protection in seven states. So the answer for the recourse depends on if there's legislation passed in the state. To get it passed in your state, please go to TheCROWNAct.com and sign the petition. You can also go to TheCROWNAct.com and find out who your local officials are so that you can petition them for The Crown Act in the state. If The Crown Act is in your state, which is what we're celebrating, you have the same recourse.

You have legal action and recourse for the discrimination, the same way you would for gender or for race or other things that are protected based on civil rights legislation and the FEHA legislation. You have legal rights if you feel that there's discrimination.

When you say, what can someone do if they feel that they've been discriminated [against]? The first thing I say is, have a conversation, and say my hair is an extension of me. And in that, [say] I believe it's completely appropriate for me to wear my hair X, Y, and Z, and see where that conversation goes. If through that conversation, you're still denied employment or access to school, and you are in a CROWN Act municipality or state, then you have the right to take action.

There's a lot of intense discussions happening right now, as we know, about meaningful systemic reform versus symbolic pacifiers if you will, can you share specific ways the passing of the CROWN act legislation has directly impacted hair discrimination or the end of hair discrimination and the creation of more equitable and inclusive beauty experiences for black women and girls?

I think The CROWN Act and the work of Dove and the CROWN Coalition and championing the legislation is exactly the action that you're talking about. In our community, as we appreciate people still saying, 'I stand with the black community' [and] 'I support #BlackLivesMatter', [we] want people to go beyond just standing with us, but actually helping us change the world and changing society because we've been oppressed for centuries. It's been 401 years since slavery. And it's only been 56 years that we have been legally desegregated. So we know we have a long road to go to make meaningful change.

I believe legislation can be that meaningful change. That legislation changes lives and The CROWN Act is an example of legislative change that makes hair discrimination, not legal. And hair discrimination is a type of discrimination.

In fact, why we've been able to get it passed is because it's recognized that hair is actually a characteristic of race that is already protected. And so what The CROWN act does is supplement that and make it clear that race is a protected class and things like The Emancipation Proclamation, which is an executive order. If we think about the 13th Amendment, if we think about The Civil Rights Act, The Voting Rights Act -- all those made meaningful changes to where we are today. The CROWN Act is an example of that. It's great to take a stance, it's even better to drive systemic change. The CROWN Act is one, but there's so many other areas that we can use our voice and our influence to drive that systemic change.

You have a daughter. What conversations have you had with her or things you've done with her to help her embrace her natural beauty?

My daughter, Anura, is one of my pride and joys because I have two, my son Benoit, and there are conversations needed with the boys and the girls. She rocks her beautiful natural hair. She wears a big, let's call it an afro puff bun. And she's proud of it. And your question is what have I done? I think it's the same as many mothers do. One is, lead by example, which is be true to who I am regardless of the organizations that I'm in.

I run a $5 billion business and I work for Unilever. I have 24 brands. I've been in corporate America for nearly 30 years. When I came into corporate America, I did feel the pressure to conform. I wore a bob and a perm and straight-up little glasses, and I wanted to fit in and blend in. And then I realized that by doing that, I was perpetuating for all what that standard was. So I challenged myself to break out of that.

I cut off my perm, wore a really short afro, changed a lot to just reflect who I was in the workplace. That is what I try to show and have conversations with my daughter about. I encourage her to go past her comfort zone and be comfortable in sharing who she is, but she's on her own journey. So, I try to lead by example and try to stretch her beyond her comfort zone and then have her see that it's not just about her, it's about other people. So, when she steps out of her comfort zone, she creates a space for others to do the same.

Courtesy of WWD

Have you yourself ever experienced hair discrimination in the workplace? And if so, how did that make you feel?

That's a hard question to answer. I have not experienced a kind of discrimination that asked me to be sent home from school or had me rejected officially from a job. But we all experience what I would call is more the covert discrimination: perceptions.

As a leader, as an executive, I've had many people not assume I was an executive. They might assume I was the intern or assume that I was working to support executives. And I've seen that and it's hard to unpack. Is it because of hair? Is it because of race? Is it because of youth? Is it because of gender?

I'd say probably all of the above because it's happened many times. So, in that, I just smile when someone makes a comment and I might say something like, 'you know, I lead this business, right?' And take what I call a power stance. I've not had to legislate for myself, but I have advocated for myself.

We're currently talking about freedom quite a bit. It’s a major topic of discussion and many things for people in the black community freedom and the black community. What does being free mean to you?

Free to me means free to be. You know, how we all have mantras [and] different things that we say? One of the things I say is free to be me. That's the foundation of freedom -- freedom to be who you are now. What does that mean in the world? That's freedom to be safe. That's freedom to be respected. That's free to contribute. That's free to bring to life the impact that we inherently know that we can make.

To learn more about The CROWN Act, visit their website. Click here to sign The CROWN Act petition and help make hair discrimination illegal.

Featured image courtesy of Esi Eggleston Bracey.

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