Wendy Greene, professor of law and director of the Center for Law, Policy, and Social Action at Drexel University’s Kline School of Law, addressed the United Nations’ First Session of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent held December 5-8 in Geneva, Switzerland.
Her message was simple but powerful: “Free the hair.”
Greene has long served as an advocate against racial discrimination that people of color around the globe face, simply for wearing their naturally textured hair freely, or in hair styles like Afros, braids, bantu knots and locs.
As a member of “Civil Society,” Greene was allotted two minutes to propose an intervention before the newly created Permanent Forum. In her remarks, she advocated for more public education, law and policy to combat race-based natural hair discrimination that African-descended people experience, so that their human rights to freedom of expression and to be free from racial discrimination are respected and protected.
Greene implored the United Nations’ Permanent Forum to continue advancing the civil and human right of people to wear their natural hair styles, “so that in the 21st century onward, African descendants may freely rock our natural hair as it grows or rock our hair freely in accordance with our needs and desires.”
Greene is a legal architect of the federal C.R.O.W.N. Act, which clarifies that discrimination on the basis of hair texture or hairstyles commonly associated with race or national origin violates federal civil rights protections against race and national origin discrimination. The United States House of Representatives has twice passed the C.R.O.W.N. Act while 19 states and over 40 municipalities have passed parallel civil rights legislation. As an internationally renowned legal expert on grooming codes discrimination, Greene has helped to advance more than 20 pieces of civil rights legislation combating race-based natural hair discrimination in workplaces, schools, public accommodations, housing and other spaces. She, too, serves as an expert witness in civil rights cases challenging school grooming policies that effectively bar African descended children from wearing natural hairstyles.
“It is challenging to capture nearly 400 years of a global experience and a call to action to address it—in two minutes or less,” Greene wrote in an email after the meeting. “However, thankfully I could draw upon my numerous experiences testifying on behalf of civil rights legislation throughout the United States—usually with very short time limits—to craft and deliver a concise, coherent, and hopefully compelling intervention.”
And Professor Greene accomplished her goal; her call to action to the Permanent Forum generated applause several times throughout the two minutes provided and addressed the health risks Black women and girls are faced with by using chemical hair straighteners to conform to White European beauty standards. The regular use of these products has been linked to an increased risk of developing uterine cancer and other potentially fatal medical conditions.
“If you care about Black women’s and girls’ health, you have to care about our hair,” Greene said. “How we, as African descendants, wear our hair is not an inconsequential, aesthetic choice, but rather a consequential matter affecting our quality of life, livelihoods, and life span.”
The four-day meeting took place in Geneva, Switzerland, where 600 people from around the world were present and another 300 attended virtually.
Media outlets such as BBC, NBC, Canada’s CTV News, the Washington Post and the New York Times have quoted Professor Greene as an expert on race-based natural hair discrimination. Recently, she contributed to Critical Race Judgments: Rewritten U.S. Court Opinions on Race and the Law, published in 2022 by Cambridge University Press.
Watch Professor Greene’s Speech