SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah lawmaker has been criticized for comments he made during a committee hearing on a proposal to ban race-based hair discrimination.
Several Black women testified about the harms of race-based grooming policies, saying people should not lose economic or educational opportunities due to their natural hairstyles, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
“You people are beautiful,” Republican state Sen. Derrin Owens said to the women who spoke in support of the proposal. Owens said he believes society is moving in the right direction without the need for legal change.
The bill, also known as the CROWN Act, would add “protective hairstyles” such as braids, locks, Afros, curls and twists to the definition of race and prohibit employment discrimination on those grounds. It was sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Derek Kitchen.
Owens then attempted to show other committee members a photo he had taken of two Black children he met in a grocery store, saying he befriended them while they were waiting for their father to check out.
“I don’t normally take pictures of children, but they were adorable, two Black children,” he said. “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, denounced the remarks and said Owens comments were “inappropriate and offensive.”
“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,” Katie Matheson, the alliance’s spokesperson, said.
Owens has since apologized and said his comments were taken out of context, adding that his intent was to encourage a teenage girl who said people threw pencils into her curly hair when she was younger.
“I was helping a dad who had two beautiful, rambunctious young children playing at the grocery store while he was checking out,” he said. Owens said he took out his phone to show the children photos of his cows before they asked to see a photo of themselves. The kids’ father thanked him for helping out, he said.
The hearing for the proposal ended in a tied vote with Owens voting against the bill.
Multiple states have already approved a version of the CROWN Act, including California, Colorado, Washington, New York and Maryland.