As twin 15-year-old students at a Malden charter school, Deanna and Mya Cook were banned from extracurricular activities, issued detentions, and prohibited from prom, all because they wore braids with extensions — hairstyles that administrators said violated school policy.
The dress code drew widespread scorn and, the attorney general later found, was discriminatory against Black students, such as the Cooks. Mystic Valley Regional Charter School eventually dropped the rules. The Cooks, now 20, have since graduated and moved on to college. But the pain hasn’t gone.
“Back then, our school made it seem like we were crazy, that we were being selfish — all these things to really invalidate our feelings,” Deanna Cook said. “We had so many classmates and students, and even people across the country, say that they have experienced something similar.”
Soon, such punishment may be illegal. The Massachusetts House on Thursday is expected to vote on legislation that would ban discrimination on the basis of a person’s natural hairstyle, including protective hairstyles such as braids, locks, or twists. It would also bar schools from creating any policy that “impairs or prohibits” natural hairstyles.
The bill, first filed by Representative Steven Ultrino, a Malden Democrat, was inspired by the Cooks’ experience, and if adopted, would make Massachusetts the 15th state to embrace language commonly referred to as the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair or CROWN Act.
The vote comes the same week the Biden administration said it supports the federal CROWN Act, which may soon see action in the US House. “The president believes that no person should be denied the ability to obtain a job, succeed in school or the workplace, secure housing, or otherwise exercise their rights based on a hair texture or hairstyle,” the administration said in a statement.
Such legislation is the product of a relatively new movement addressing what advocates say has been a systemic, if until recently underdiscussed, form of racism. Before 2019, no state had specific language banning race-based hair discrimination, which tends to disproportionately affect Black women and men.
“These are things we discussed in silos: These are dinner conversations. You have them in barbershops and beauty salons. But who were you going to go tell? There was no legal recourse,” said Adjoa B. Asamoah, the legislative strategist for the CROWN Coalition, which began in 2018 and has advocated for the legislation around the country, including in Massachusetts.
“We’re really talking about improving work climate and culture,” she said. “We’re talking about real inclusion and real diversity.”
Last year alone, seven states, including Connecticut, passed similar bills, according to Ultrino’s office. The US House is also expected to debate a federal version of the legislation on Friday, said Representative Ayanna Pressley, one of the bill’s cosponsors.
“From personnel handbooks to school dress code policies, Afros, locks, twists — they have been classified as proxies for anti-Black racism,” said Pressley, who wore Senegalese twists before she lost her hair to alopecia. “There’s all sorts of stigma, there’s all sort of discriminatory thoughts about our hair being unclean. It’s time to nip that in the bud.”
It’s painfully clear to many in Massachusetts. State Senator Lydia Edwards, an East Boston Democrat and the chamber’s only Black member, said she didn’t wear her hair naturally until she was in her 30s and working in legal services. Before that, while working in corporate settings, she would pour money into chemically straightening her hair or hair weaves.
Edwards said she personally didn’t face discrimination over hair, but suggests that’s “because I was performing.”
“This bill isn’t just pro-hair. It’s acknowledging hairstyle-based policies . . . have nothing to do with your capacity as a student or a worker,” Edwards said.
Lezlie Braxton Campbell, a Springfield advocate who last year ran for city council, said several people asked him at the onset of his campaign if he was going to cut the locks he had started wearing in recent years. Campbell, who is Black, said the suggestion left him “agitated.”
“People shouldn’t have to fear wearing a natural hairstyle because of how their workplace or particular spaces may react,” he said. “It’s crazy that we have to put into law that you can’t discriminate against somebody because of their hair. . . . But it’s not a bill that’s for show. It’s a real issue.”
Ultrino said that after he filed his bill, a mother on the North Shore contacted his office, reporting that her teenage son, who wore his hair in an Afro, had been told to wear a hairnet at his job as a cashier at a local supermarket. He was the only one told he had to, the woman told him.
“I’m on the phone [saying], ‘Is this a joke?’ I couldn’t believe it,” said Ultrino.
Ultrino, who’s cosponsoring this session’s legislation with Representative Chynah Tyler of Boston, is admittedly somewhat of an unlikely champion for the issue. “I’m white. And I lost my hair in college,” he said.
But he said he was stunned by the discrimination the Cooks faced, and the gaps in the law it highlighted. “It’s a justice issue,” he said.
There’s little doubt the legislation will advance Thursday in the House, which first passed a version of the bill in July 2020 without a roll call vote before it stalled in the Senate. It also has the support of Speaker Ronald Mariano, a former teacher who said prohibiting such policies in schools is the right decision.
“Bans on natural hairstyles are racist,” the Quincy Democrat said Tuesday.
Proponents in the Senate say they too see new momentum behind it. Senator Adam Gomez, a Springfield Democrat who filed the bill with Senator Sal N. DiDomenico, said there are a range of “people of color conversations” — from a bill that would allow people without legal immigration status to get driver’s licenses to the CROWN Act — that he views as being “on the 10-yard line and we’re trying to get across the finish line.”
For some, the bill’s passage in Massachusetts can’t come soon enough. While the Cooks’ experience has served as inspiration for the bill here, their father, Aaron, submitted testimony on similar legislation in Maryland, where he grew up. Lawmakers there passed their own version in 2020.
To see other states move faster than Massachusetts is a small source of frustration — and surprise — for the Cook family. “We’re a liberal state. This should have been passed years before,” said Colleen Cook, the twins’ mother.
But there is also hope the wait won’t be much longer.
“It would feel like a full-circle moment because we have been working so hard to have this passed in general,” Mya Cook said. “To have it pass in our own backyard, that would be amazing.”