Black Minnesotans say they’ve faced pressure to change their hair

A woman testifies at a hearing about her experience.
Linda Garrett-Johnson of Apple Valley says she often feels self-conscious entering professional spaces with her natural hair at a Minnesota House committee hearing on Thursday.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Updated: Feb. 18, 10:07 a.m.

Linda Garrett-Johnson had worked at a health care company for 10 years when she woke up one day to find her hair falling out, the result of years of using hair straighteners.

The Apple Valley woman had a decision to make: keep straightening and end up bald, or go natural. Both choices terrified her.

"As black women we are taught to feel like wearing our natural hair is something to be ashamed of,” said Garrett-Johnson. “So, we cover it up by flat ironing it to make ourselves look like our — I hate to say it, but — our white counterparts."

Fortunately, Garrett-Johnson did not lose her job over her hair. But in Minnesota and across the country, more African Americans are going public with their concerns about being marginalized or punished for wearing their hair naturally.

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Garrett-Johnson relayed her story to House lawmakers on Thursday, testifying at the Capitol in support of a bill to prevent employers and schools in Minnesota from targeting African Americans who wear dreadlocks, braids or other textured hair.

"African American women are 80 percent more likely to change their natural hair to meet Eurocentric standards of appearance, social norms and expectations at work,” DFL state Rep. Rena Moran, the bill’s author, said Thursday, citing a report by a national coalition working to pass laws across the country banning race-based hair discrimination.

Moran, the first African American woman to represent St. Paul at the Legislature, cited research showing that black women are more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair.

In 2013, a Minnesota employer threatened the jobs of black employees who wouldn’t cut their hair, said state Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero. "Several insisted on maintaining their dignity by refusing to cut their hair. They were fired.”

Lucero said her department ultimately reached a settlement that restored the employees’ jobs.

Moran said that story and others prompted her to start wearing her own hair in braids and to write the new bill, which would be a chance to the state Human Rights Act.

Thursday’s testimony also included a 15-year-old who goes to Irondale High School in New Brighton.

A woman testifies at a hearing about her experience.
Nyahbinghi Selassie, right, testifies at a Minnesota House committee hearing about her experience being singled out for wearing her wash and go style, as DFL state Rep. Rena Moran looks on.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Nyahbinghi Selassie spoke of her experiences as a mixed-race girl who used to straighten her hair but now embraces her wash-and-go style with tight curls.

"Last year, I was in the school play,” she told lawmakers. “One day, I was pulled to the side just to be asked, ‘What are you going to do with your hair? I don't want it getting out of control on stage.’"

Selassie didn't change her hair for the play, and she continues to wear it naturally.

Four-year-old Mya Williamson and her parents drove up from Mankato, Minn., for the hearing.

Four-year-old Mya comes to a hearing at the Capitol.
Mya Williamson, 4, came to a legislative hearing about a bill that would ban discrimination against black people with natural hair.
Courtesy of Matnique Williamson

Mya didn’t testify but after the hearing posed for photos with the bill's supporters and showed off Zoey, her doll with natural hair.

With movies like “Frozen” dominating the culture of young girls, Mya’s mother, Briana, said it took a lot of effort to get her daughter to accept her natural hair texture.

"Frozen 2 came out and it really triggered this identity crisis for her,” she said. “Everything that was going on was all about ‘Frozen.’ She started to want blonde hair and want the blonde braid, and we were trying to help her understand what ‘Frozen’ would look like if it was for her."

Mya got to have what she called a "brown Frozen" party.

The House Government Operations Committee unanimously passed the measure Thursday. It's headed next to the House Judiciary Committee. There is no companion bill in the Senate.

Correction (Feb. 18, 2020): This story has been updated with the correct year of a discrimination case cited by the Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero.