GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Tuesday signed the CROWN Act into law, making Massachusetts the 18th state to ban discrimination based on “natural hairstyles.”
The governor held a joyous bill signing ceremony in his office, surrounded by advocates and lawmakers, the first such ceremony in his office since before the pandemic.
The bill was prompted in part by the story of Mya and Deanna Cook, then-15-year-old twins who were disciplined in 2017 because they wore box braids to school at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden. The girls said wearing braids was part of their culture and was necessary to keep their natural hair healthy when they decided to no longer straighten their hair. The school said the braids were prohibited under their policy banning hair extensions and “drastic or unnatural” hair styles. The school only relented after Attorney General Maura Healey got involved.
The Cook sisters attended the bill-signing. “We promised ourselves we’d make sure no one has to go through what our school put us through again,” said Deanna Cook. She said it “means the absolutely world to us” that the bill is now law. “When we first got our detentions, I never thought we’d be here,” she said.
The sisters said it feels like a personal attack when they are discriminated against for their natural hair. “It hurts a lot. It feels awful to know the way I look naturally is looked down on by people,” Mya Cook said. “I want to be natural, be myself, but it’s hard when people are discriminating against that.”
Natural and protective hairstyles are terms that generally refer to specific hairstyles worn by Black women because of the texture of their hair. The Massachusetts bill defines protective hairstyles as styles like braids, locks, twists, and Bantu knots (an African style where hair is sectioned, twisted, and wrapped).
Over the last several years, Black women have become more vocal about the struggles they have experienced, with women being told their hairstyles were unprofessional in the workplace, and girls being told their hairstyles do not conform to school dress codes.
The Massachusetts bill is part of a national campaign to pass versions of the CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, in states and in Congress. The US House of Representatives passed a bill in 2020 banning hairstyle discrimination but the Senate has not taken it up.
Rep. Steven Ultrino, a Malden Democrat, sponsored the bill along with Rep. Chynah Tyler, a Boston Democrat, in response to the Cook girls’ experience. The House and Senate both passed versions of the bill in March, but the branches took several months to negotiate and pass the final language.
The final bill prohibits discrimination based on natural and protective hairstyles in schools, employment, housing, and business settings. It expands regulations related to hate crimes so that data reporting on hate crimes considers crimes based on natural hairstyles to be race-based. Language that was negotiated between the bodies applies the discrimination prohibition to public schools and to student athletic organizations, including the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. To avoid religion-related legal challenges, it includes an exception for religious private schools where applying the law “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of the institution.”
Several state lawmakers attended the ceremony, including those who had their own experiences with hair discrimination. Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley, a Boston Democrat, said as a former public school teacher she felt it was important for her students to see her with natural hair. But as a public defender in Boston “my natural hair wasn’t going to fly.” She spent hours straightening it to avoid prejudicing a judge against her clients.
Sen. Lydia Edwards, a Boston Democrat who described herself as the first state senator with dreadlocks, said a whole economy exists around Black women’s hair, including an “oppressive economy” in which women pay to use straightening chemicals and fake hair. She personally said she started her legal career by adding “someone else’s hair, most likely from India” into her own so she could fit in. Now, she said, “I don’t feel l I have to fit in. I can break the mold.”