The California legislator authored the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act, meant to protect students and employees wearing natural hairstyles from discrimination.

Holly Mitchell’s family has lived in Los Angeles for three generations. As a child, she watched her parents, who were both social workers, serve members of their community. During dinner they would sit at the kitchen table talking about the day’s cases, the roadblocks they faced, the frustrations they felt and the joy that radiated through their bodies when they were able to solve a problem for a client and make their lives better. Holly saw her parents making an impact on the individuals who lived around her, and she hoped that one day she would have that feeling of joy from helping people improve their lives.

Mitchell did all of the traditional things that we are often told it takes to be successful: she got good grades and attended the University of California at Riverside. When she graduated she put her degree to good use, advocating for programs that would better the mindset and overall health of children living in California. After serving as a legislative advocate for The Western Center on Law and Poverty, and later a consultant to the Senate Health Committee, she felt stuck. She felt the pressure to conform to the physical standards set by her colleagues in the office, which meant changing the texture of her hair, and emulating their mannerisms, so that she wasn’t seen as “different.” 

In this case, being unique was not seen as a valuable asset. She, like many of the people of color, wrestled with their identity and how to express their individuality on the job. As she helped individual families solve problems, Mitchell wondered if there was a more significant way to help those under her care that would have a larger impact. As an advisor Holly could make recommendations about what was best for the children of California but often the suggestions were watered down, tabled, or ignored altogether. She got frustrated every time budget cuts came around and threatened the work that wanted to help families lead better lives.

Over time, Mitchell’s ideas gained traction, and she advanced to senior and executive-level positions. During her seven-year tenure at the nonprofit Crystal Stairs (where she eventually became CEO), she started wearing her hair in its natural state. She began wearing dreadlocks at age 40, which, through an intricate process, transformed her hair into fine ropelike strands often worn by the people of the African diaspora.

Mitchell’s hair was a way of signaling to the younger people of color on her staff that they had the right to wear their hair in a variety of ways, and that she valued their skills and contributions to the organization more than their ability to conform to certain beauty standards. 

After several years of fighting for early education benefits for children, the California government doled out another round of severe budget cuts and Mitchell decided it was time for a change. The children she wanted to help and the community at large could benefit from her knowledge if only she was willing to be bolder—so she made a choice. Holly Mitchell decided to run for office. People in her district rallied around her and knocked on doors to convince their neighbors to get out and vote in the election. Mitchell was sworn in as a member of the California State Assembly in 2010 and currently serves as a member of the California State Senate from the 30th district.  

The area she represents contains almost 1 million people, who are able to come to her with concerns and needs of their community. She has worked to pass nearly 70 bills meant to help or protect the people of California, using her position to write legislation that would prevent youth homelessness, and extended access to mental health care services to the state’s most vulnerable residents. In 2016 she became the first African American to chair the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, where she oversaw the passage and adoption of the 2017 and 2018 budgets. She was finally in a position to fix the problems that frustrated her so many years earlier, and she made sure that her budget included funding for elementary and college education childcare services, as well as programs to assist homeless residents, the elderly and working families.

When Mitchell became a legislator, her social media feed became filled with posts and viral videos pointing out just how pervasive hair discrimination was in post-Obama America. She heard stories of Black children being humiliated and sent home from school because the family decided to break from the long history of using wigs or chemical straightening treatments to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty and professionalism. Hair was once again a divisive issue in American culture. 

One video would garner millions of views and push Americans around the country to learn more about this rarely discussed form of discrimination.

In December 2018, footage of Andrew Johnson, a 16-year-old New Jersey high school wrestler was given an ultimatum by a referee ahead of his match: cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit the competition, affecting his entire team’s score and chances of winning the tournament. Andrew, who is Black, was wearing his standard headgear (which covered his hair) as he had done all season, but the referee said he was not in compliance with state rules. The official gave Andrew 90 seconds to decide. 

Smartphone footage captured his school’s team trainer taking silver shears/scissors to his hair as the boy’s head hung down. None of the adults around Andrew stood up for him or advocated for his personhood in the face of this abuse of power and racism doled out by an athletic official. 

Andrew won his match in overtime but it was apparent to everyone watching that he lost something bigger. In African American culture, hair is often a strong part of a person’s identity, and as Mitchell sees it, many people of color have to succumb to the pressure of unjust oppression and the unwarranted stripping of that identity in order to be successful. The look of misery on Andrew’s face resonated with the senator. She knew she might not be able to protect him, but as a legislator she could protect the youth in her district from being forced to endure similar experiences. She wanted to find a way to keep employers and schools from discriminating against hairstyles such as dreadlocks, braids, afros, and twists.

“That video was so hard to watch,” Mitchell explained, adding that the incident was a major point of discussion in her office. “We were all stunned and thought, ‘Well if we needed validation about why this is important, and why we should make it a legislative priority, there it is.’”

Mitchell thought about Andrew Johnson over the holidays, and when she found an old photo album while she was cleaning up after Christmas, she realized just how important her hair was to her identity when she was a young woman. She flipped through page after page of memories—outings with friends, competing in school activities, even the little things like swapping test intel at lunch. As she turned the pages, one of the things she noticed more often than not was her hair. It was the early 1980s and she wore every style that was popular at the time—tiny tendrils of hair called microbraids, the bigger box braids made popular in the movies of the time, and long braided hairstyles with intricate beading woven into the work. 

“It’s so much deeper than hair,” she thought. She believes her resilience, ambition, and mission as a legislator were crystalized during those years. As a young Black girl, Mitchell saw hair as a source of self confidence—yet she realized that what mattered were the ideas in her head, not the hair on top of it. Yet non-Black observers thought of natural hair as a distraction—and in some cases believed it to be dirty and unkempt—all because they didn’t take the time to learn about what the subject of hair could mean to a community. 

“All of us are touched when we pick up a magazine, or look at social media, or see images on TV that promote certain ideals as beautiful,” Mitchell said. “As a parent, I’m clear that we have to reinforce very early a sense of self and confidence and comfort in their own skin, because we know all of the external messages that [children] get will tear them down.” 

Sitting on her couch, looking through that photo album, Mitchell realized that she might have become somebody different had she constantly had her hair criticized. Administrators challenging her hair in the state that it grew out of her head might have eroded her confidence at a young age. High school was hard enough without added ire of arguing with school administrators about the propriety of their hair. 

When Mitchell was in high school and college, waves of African American women lost court cases against their employers, and it all came back to hair. The women wanted to wear their hair in its natural state—an afro, or in braids—and their employers countered with the idea that those hairstyles were less professional in appearance. If the employee refused to conform to the Eurocentric definition of professional beauty by refusing to straighten their hair using time-consuming, harsh, toxic products, they were fired. As a result, people of color all over the country were pressured to conform in order to stay employed or advance in their careers. Mitchell took note of these cases, but she wasn’t sure what sort of impact she could have. Still, the feeling of helplessness at seeing Black men and women being denied access to economic advancement because of their appearance stuck with her.

As a senator, Mitchell had the ability to impact these laws and beauty standards. Researchers in Mitchell’s office found that there was no legal precedent in state or federal court protecting against hair discrimination. With the help of members of the CROWN Coalition, the National Urban League, Color Of Change, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Mitchell’s staff looked for the best way to introduce and pass anti-hair discrimination legislation in California. 

On April 22, Senator Holly Mitchell brought the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) to the California State Senate floor. The bill would ensure protection from discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture; public schools, charter schools, and employers would be prevented from banning African American hairstyles such as afros, braids, and locks. The CROWN Act passed California’s Senate floor with a 37-0 bipartisan vote. On July 3, 2019 Governor Gavin Newsom officially signed the bill into law.

The popularity of the CROWN Act is spreading. On July 12, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill prohibiting discrimination of natural hair or hairstyles, making New York the second state to have laws preventing hairstyle-based discrimination. Lawmakers in New Jersey have also introduced a version of the CROWN Act. Senator Mitchell believes that these recent developments are part of a larger cultural movement to put an end to discrimination against natural hair. She and the other members of the CROWN Coalition are urging constituents all over the county to make their concerns about natural hair discrimination known, so that local legislators can pass their own versions of the CROWN Act. In the meantime, she is back at work in California, representing the residents of her district, working to make her community a better, safer, healthier place to live.

Latria Graham is a journalist and fifth generation South Carolina farmer. Her work stands at the intersection of food, social justice, sports and culture. She’s written longform pieces about everything from farming to NASCAR. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College, and later earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The New School in New York City. She is a two-time Best American Sportswriting notable for her stories on athletes in places of tension—primarily Standing Rock, ND and Flint, MI. She received a Bronze level CASE Award for her reporting on immigration policy that stemmed from 2017’s Executive Order 13769, often referred to as the “travel ban.” Her work has been featured in The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian, Southern Living, and Garden&Gun. You can find more of her work at