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Massachusetts just banned hair discrimination.  These twins helped pave the way.


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“What really strikes me is how they really tried to demonize our hair at such a young age.”

Deanna Cook and Mya Cook. Courtesy of the Cook family

Five years ago, Boston-area high school girls Mya and Deanna Cook made national headlines after their school punished them for wearing braided hair extensions. The twins, who are black, fought back – drawing the attention of the ACLU of Massachusetts, the NAACP and lawmakers across the country, who said the school’s policy banning hair extensions and penalties inflicted were racially discriminatory.

This week, the cooks, now college seniors, stood alongside Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, R, as he signed the state’s version of the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination against natural hairstyles. The new law, which passed unanimously in both houses of the Statehouse, makes Massachusetts the 18th state to protect black people from punishment for the way they wear their hair.

It was a full circle moment for the twins, now 21, as they enter their final year of college.

“It was just amazing,” said Mya Cook, a psychology student at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. “I remember being in high school and hearing teachers say, ‘Stop. You’re not going to change the rules of this school. You won’t make any difference. “

The first CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” was passed in California in 2019. Since then, bills protecting natural hair styles, such as afros, braids, twisted locks and Bantu knots have become widespread. Across the country. The US House of Representatives passed its version earlier this year. (The Senate has yet to consider the bill.)

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., one of the authors of the House CROWN Act, said during a floor debate in March that passing the bill was a “bold step” toward “the affirmation of the right for all of us to present ourselves to the world as our full and authentic selves.

Some conservative lawmakers, however, have scoffed at this type of legislation. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., called it a “bad hair bill,” while others, like Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said the bill hijacks the attention to issues “that concern the American people”.

To that, Rep. Al Green, D-Tex., replied, “When you say the American people don’t want them, you can’t exclude black people. … It’s a kitchen table problem in black households.

“Because when Johnny comes home and he got fired because of his hair, it’s a kitchen table problem. It’s unemployment,” Green added.

For Mya and Deanna Cook, the rule imposed by Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Mass., was disruptive and humiliating. “It was a chilling awakening to how no one is immune to [racial] discrimination,” said Deanna Cook, who studies anthropology and business at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The rule required that students not wear “drastic or unnatural hair colors or styles such as shaved lines or shaved sides or have a hairstyle that could distract other students (extra-long hair or more than two inches in thickness or height are not allowed),” according to NBC News. It also explicitly banned hair extensions.

The cooks, who were 15 at the time, told the Unladylike podcast last year that they were inspired to try braided extensions after their friends encouraged them. For years, they had chemically straightened their hair. During spring break their sophomore year, they decided to change, they said.

Their friends and some of their teachers praised them for their new look when they returned to school, the twins said, but a teacher dismissed them, saying their hair violated school policy. After the twins refused to change their hairstyles, they said they received around 40 hours of detention and were barred by school administrators from attending prom or competing on the school’s track team. school.

At the time, the school argued that the dress code, which also bans makeup and nail polish, was intended to make students less aware of wealth disparities.

Although the cooks gained support from other students and members of their community, they said they felt ostracized and targeted by school staff. “What really strikes me is how they really tried to demonize our hair at such a young age,” said Mya Cook, who called the rule’s enforcement blatantly racist.

“I was shocked that the adults in my life did this to me at the time,” Deanna Cook said. “I was a kid…and they were okay with embarrassing us every day. They agreed to intimidate us. They agreed to put us in the hot seat and make us look bad, make us an example.

Mystic Valley Regional Charter School did not respond to a request for comment.

Their case caught the attention of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a discrimination complaint with the state Department of Education. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office also asked the school to immediately stop enforcing the policy.

Even though there are federal and constitutional protections against racial discrimination, bills like the CROWN Act are important because this type of discrimination is so prevalent, said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Many school and workplace policies restricting natural hairstyles are portrayed as racially neutral, even though they disproportionately impact black people, Rose said.

Indeed, these rules are based on white, Christian and Western standards for appearance, she said. For example, banning hair over two inches in thickness and height “disproportionately affects students of color whose hair is coarser, thicker [and] does not sit flat with white students.

Rose added that by specifically calling for hair discrimination, the CROWN Act “sends a message to employers, school officials, national leaders that policies that are on the face of it ‘neutral’ but are in fact discriminatory based on hair and race are expressly prohibited.”

Research has shown that black schoolgirls are more likely to have the way they dress and present themselves scrutinized and punished. A 2019 report from the National Women’s Law Center found that, among 29 DC schools, majority black high schools had more dress code restrictions on average than other schools. According to the report, even policies written as gender-neutral focused primarily on clothing typically worn by girls.

Rose noted that in Massachusetts, black girls are more than four times more likely to face school discipline than their white counterparts.

Today, the Cook sisters like to wear natural hairstyles – Mya prefers a wash to go, and the two sisters say that, despite the “rough start”, they still like to wear braids. They also hope that the CROWN Act will be passed at the federal level so that more people can be protected from hair discrimination.

Deanna Cook said they plan to continue advocating for such laws to be passed: “The more people know about it, the more people talking about it, the more successful it will be.”



Boston

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