IN 2017, Mya and Deanna Cook, 15-year-old twins, were disciplined because they wore box braids to school at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden.
Box braids and other protective hairstyles are commonly used by Black women who have textured hair to keep their hair healthy by limiting its exposure to sun, weather, or constant styling.
“We wanted to start taking care of our natural hair and dealing with our natural hair after years of straightening it because of pressure to conform,” Mya Cook said in a phone interview. “We’d never done professional box braids before. It’s part of our culture as Black women to be able to wear braids.”
The school said the braids violated the school’s policy prohibiting hair extensions and prohibiting “drastic or unnatural” hair styles. They imposed hours of detention, threatened to suspend the girls, and barred them from participating in extra-curricular activities.
The teenagers and their parents arranged a meeting with the school, then organized public protests. Eventually, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office sent a letter to the school raising concerns that the hair and make-up policy was discriminatory and violates state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
The school revised its policy. Healey entered into a memorandum of understanding with the school that required the school to consult with her office on future changes to the hair policy, expunge disciplinary records of any students penalized for violating policies on hair extensions and hair thickness, and hire someone to conduct an internal review of its non-discrimination policies.
The Cooks – now juniors in college – began a crusade to ensure that no other girls endure what they did.
“It should be a right to be able to wear our hair how we want to be able to wear it and how we’re supposed to be able to wear it,” Mya Cook said. “We shouldn’t be discriminated against for taking care of our hair.”
On Thursday, after years of their advocacy, the Massachusetts House passed a bill that would prohibit schools from having policies that ban natural hairstyles. The bill also prohibits discrimination in workplaces and public spaces based on natural hairstyles.
The bill passed unanimously, 155-0.
“I don’t think people understand what people of color go through with their type of hair,” said Rep. Steven Ultrino, a Malden Democrat who sponsored the bill along with Rep. Chynah Tyler, a Boston Democrat, in an interview.
Rep. Michael Day, a Stoneham Democrat who leads the Judiciary Committee, said during the House debate that “hair has become a proxy used by those who traffic in racism.” Discrimination based on hair, he said, is “racism pure and simple.”
The CROWN Act passed the House at the end of the last legislative session, but without enough time for consideration by the Senate. Ultrino said he hopes passing the bill earlier this session will give it a better chance of becoming law.
Black women’s hair has become an unusual centerpiece of national discussions around racial justice and civil rights. Black women have recently started talking about pressure in the workplace to adopt a “professional” look – which often means straightening naturally curly hair or not wearing styles like braids. NBC10 Boston news anchor Latoyia Edwards wrote a personal story in the Boston Globe in November explaining her decision to stop straightening her hair and begin wearing braids on air.
A national campaign has been picking up steam over the last several years to pass a bill called the CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, in every state. These bills ban discrimination based on natural or protective hairstyles. In 2019, New York, New Jersey, and California passed CROWN Act bills. Another 10 states have since followed suit. The US House of Representatives passed a bill in 2020 that would ban hair-related discrimination nationally, but the Senate did not vote on it.
The bill that passed the Massachusetts House defines natural hairstyles as “texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles,” like braids or lock twists. It bans policies that limit or prohibit natural hairstyles in schools. It also prohibits hair discrimination in employment, business, and public spaces. It does not affect non-natural hairstyles or interfere with workplace safety standards.
Healey’s office has taken the position that hairstyle discrimination is illegal when it has the intention or effect of singling out Black people or another protected class, but Healey would support further legal clarity through legislation.
Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley, a Boston Democrat making her first speech in the House, said 80 percent of Black women have changed their natural hairstyle to fit in at work. When Fluker Oakley worked as a public defender, she said she straightened her hair every time she litigated in court. “I knew if did not, I risked discrimination by the jury, court officers, opposing counsel, or even the judge,” Fluker Oakley said. She said her brother-in-law, who owns an information technology company, was once offered a job on condition he cut his hair. He did not.
It is time to make clear, Fluker Oakley said, that “Black hair is acceptable, it’s professional, and it’s beautiful.