Black Arizonans protected from hair discrimination in state employment by Gov. Hobbs order

Stacey Barchenger
Arizona Republic

Black Arizonans won protection from discrimination based on their natural hair or hairstyles Friday after Gov. Katie Hobbs signed an executive order banning such discrimination in matters of state employment and contracts.

Citing a 2019 report that Black women are 80% more likely to change their natural hair to meet social or work expectations, and 1 1/2 times more likely to get sent home from a job because of their hair, Hobbs called the executive order a step toward "building an Arizona for everyone," a theme she often repeats.

"The impact can last a lifetime," Hobbs said of such discrimination. "With this action today, we are saying that this will not be the case in Arizona. That if you work for us, we will respect and honor your culture, and you can show up as your true selves."

The order prohibits Arizona's about three dozen state agencies from discriminating based on hair texture and certain hairstyles. It requires state contracts to include the protection, and applies to employment matters and in schools. The order is designed to protect "all race-based hairstyles," but outlines specifically studies that show Black people, in particular women and children, face discrimination based on their natural hair.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs signs an executive order on March 17, 2023, banning discrimination in state employment and contracts based on hair texture and hairstyle, offering protections to Black Arizonans who can be treated differently because of their natural hair.

A national campaign in support of the protections launched in 2019 under the moniker the CROWN Act — Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. The campaign brought added attention to an issue that was widespread, but not covered by more broad laws banning race discrimination. Courts evaluating the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act have said it only protects Afros, not other natural hairstyles, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

But today, 20 states have passed legislation protecting people who wear natural hair or styles like braids, locks and twists from discrimination, according to the national CROWN campaign.

Arizona is not among them, though Tempe and Tucson have ordinances banning hair discrimination, both of which were passed in 2021. Two Democrat-backed bills that would put the protections into Arizona law, and apply them more broadly than what Hobbs can accomplish with her executive order, were introduced this year at the Capitol, but have not advanced in the legislative process.

'Our hair is part of who we are'

Hobbs' action provides a step forward on an issue that is gaining attention, according to supporters who gathered with the Democratic governor in her office Friday afternoon for the executive order signing.

"Thank you, Gov. Hobbs, for making Black folks and our hair one less hurdle to jump over in many workplaces and social spaces," said Neal A. Lester, foundation professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University. Lester has studied and spoken widely about gender and race politics of hair.

"We are not our hair," Lester said. "But our hair is part of who we are, and how we are."

For Martina Nicholas, Black hair also is her business. Nicholas is the owner of Sunflower Curls Studio, an uptown Phoenix salon that specializes in tight curls and coils. She is working to increase knowledge about natural hair in beauty schools across the nation, as well as with the state board that licenses barbers and cosmetologists.

Nicholas grew up in Chicago, where she styled her hair with braids and beads. But after moving to Arizona when she was about 10, she found less diversity and less acceptance of her hair, she said.

"I got my hair touched a lot in class, I got a lot of questions about what my hair was doing," she said. "I ended up turning to chemically straightening and using heat on my hair to just blend in."

While that made her feel inferior to others, she said it ultimately drove her passion for her business. Nicholas, who gave up straightening and now wears her natural curls, said witnessing the executive order signing made her tear up, thinking about the kids and teens she counts among her clients.

"These are my little babies that don't have to live this experience now that I had to live, because there's a little more protection," she said. "Hopefully it continues to just push everything forward."

New strategy:Senator vetting Hobbs' nominees takes a new tactic with Arizona environmental department director

Hobbs' latest action builds on a stack of nine executive orders signed in her first months in office.

The orders establish or revive panels of people to focus on elections, homelessness and housing, water policy, the death penalty, prisons, teacher retention and missing and murdered Indigenous people. Hobbs' first order, signed on Jan. 2, the day she was sworn in, expanded state anti-discrimination policies to include gender identity and reaffirm that sexual orientation was protected.

Executive orders are one avenue for Hobbs to shape state policy and practice on her own, without needing the at-times adversarial Republican-majority Legislature to agree to her agenda.

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.