Utah senator criticized for ‘inappropriate’ remarks during hearing on race-based hair discrimination

Sen. Derrin Owens told several Black women that “you people are beautiful.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Derrin Owens, left, chats with Sen. David P. Hinkins, on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.

A Utah lawmaker is drawing heat for telling several Black women Tuesday that “you people are beautiful” and for several other comments that he made during a committee hearing on a proposal to bar race-based hair discrimination.

Several Black women testified about the harms that race-based grooming policies can inflict, saying people shouldn’t have to suffer the loss of economic or educational opportunities simply because they choose natural hairstyles.

However, state Sen. Derrin Owens said he believes society is already heading in the right direction without the need for the legal change laid out in SB80 — a bill that would add “protective hairstyles” such as braids, locks, Afros, curls and twists to the definition of race and prohibit employment discrimination on those grounds.

“You people are beautiful,” Owens, R-Fountain Green, said to several Black women who spoke in support of the proposal, known as the CROWN Act.

The state senator then attempted to show other members of the committee a photo he’d taken of two Black children he met in a grocery store recently. Owens said he’d befriended the two kids, who were running up and down the aisle as their father was trying to check out.

“I don’t normally take pictures of children, but they were adorable, two Black children,” the Fountain Green Republican said. “Because they’re just the cutest kids in the world. One has cornrows and the other one has dreadlocks. I wish you could see that.”

The Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive government watchdog group, swiftly denounced the remarks, calling the comments “inappropriate and offensive.”

“Here we are on day nine of Black History Month and we’re learning how little some of our elected officials in Utah understand race and racism,” Katie Matheson, the alliance’s spokesperson said in a prepared statement. “The purpose of the CROWN Act is to protect against race-based hair discrimination. In his comments about the bill, Senator Owens unwittingly illustrated exactly why Utah needs such protections.”

In a prepared statement, Owens said his comments were taken out of context, adding that his intent was to encourage a teenage girl who had testified that people threw pencils into her curly hair when she was younger. However, he apologized if his comments “came off as offensive.”

“My story about the picture on my phone was about showing kindness to one another,” Owens continued. “I was helping a dad who had two beautiful, rambunctious young children playing at the grocery store while he was checking out.”

In an effort to interest the kids, Owens said he took out his phone to show them a photo of his cows. They wanted to see a photo of themselves on his phone, “so I took a picture of them posing,” he said. The kids’ father thanked him for helping out.

“I encourage individuals to listen and consider the context of the story instead of attacking,” he concluded.

The bill hearing ended with a tied vote, with Owens and another Republican senator opposing the proposal and two Democratic lawmakers supporting it. The committee chair said he would bring the legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, back for another hearing when more of the panel’s members were present to break the stalemate.

Wendy Greene, a Drexel University law professor and founder of the #FreetheHair campaign, was among those who argued that Utah needs a CROWN Act to prohibit the race-based discrimination that is sometimes baked into workplace grooming standards.

“In the case of Black women, employer’s prohibitions against natural hairstyles require them to either cut off their hair or conform to what I call a straight hair expectation or mandate,” Greene said. “The latter is usually achieved through toxic chemicals, extreme heat styling, wigs and weaves, which are expensive and time consuming to maintain.”

Alyssha Dairsow, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Curly Me!, spoke about the messages that this race-based hair discrimination can send to young people, especially in a predominantly white state like Utah. Her Salt Lake City-based nonprofit strives to empower these kids by introducing them to adults of all different professions who wear their hair in twists, braids or other natural styles, she said.

“The child feels empowered to say, ‘Oh, this is OK to exist in a world, i.e. Utah, where most people don’t look like me. Most teachers don’t look like me. The people at my ward, they don’t look like me. In the supermarket, they don’t look like me,” she said. “And the further away from certain parts of Utah we get, the more isolated these children get it.”

Seven states — including California, Colorado, Washington, New York and Maryland — have already approved a version of the CROWN Act, and several red states are considering it, supporters of the bill testified Tuesday.

But while Sen. Ron Winterton, who chairs the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee, praised the public commenters for exposing lawmakers to new ideas, the Roosevelt Republican ultimately joined Owens in voting against the proposal after saying he was somewhat “dumbfounded” that race-based hair discrimination exists.

“As I’m with my wife and we see somebody that has a different lifestyle or different hairstyle than ours, we have to smile, because we have some kids,” Winterton said, adding that his daughter dyed her hair purple at one point. “And so it’s just brought new light to me thinking about this, because it’s nothing that I’ve ever considered.”