As Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation barring discrimination on the basis of a person’s natural hairstyle or hair texture into law in his office Tuesday afternoon, twin sisters Deanna and Mya Cook, 21, smiled with pride and joy.
“I never thought we’d be here,” Deanna Cook, in tears, told the dozens of legislators, activists, and reporters gathered for the historic moment. “To be here and know that no one will go through what we did again, it means more than the world.”
In 2017, the Cook sisters received detention, were removed from extracurriculars, and prohibited from attending prom while attending Mystic Valley Regional Charter School because they wore braids with extensions, a protective style banned through school policy. (The school has since removed the rules.) Their experience spurred state Representatives Steven Ultrino, a Malden Democrat, and Chynah Tyler, a Boston Democrat, to file the bill that finally made its way to the governor’s desk that afternoon.
“Thank you to everyone who’s supported us here in our journey,” Mya Cook said. “Today is the day to celebrate our crowns.”
Massachusetts follows 17 other states in adopting language known as the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, or CROWN, Act. Now, it’s illegal in the Commonwealth to discriminate against a person for donning styles including, but not limited to, braids, locs, twists, and Bantu knots. Proponents say the law is a crucial first step in reversing centuries of harm perpetrated against Black Americans because of their natural hair textures.
“It doesn’t even seem right that we have to pass a law to do what we’re trying to do today,” said state Senator Sal DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat and bill cosponsor. “Imagine how many times this has happened in the past.”
In his first public, official signing ceremony from his office since the start of the pandemic, Baker said the legislation was one of those he hoped would receive his signature by the end of the legislative session.
“This is a classic example of a citizen movement started by a very small number of people, in which the right thing to do became clearer and clearer the longer the discussion went,” he said.
Applause filled the room as Baker handed official pens to the twin sisters, who both showed off their natural curl patterns in tight ringlets framing their faces. Among those in attendance were the sisters’ parents, and members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, many of whom said they would be directly affected by the bill’s success.
State Senator Lydia Edwards, a Democrat representing parts of Revere, Winthrop, Cambridge, and Boston, said she’s likely the first senator in the Commonwealth to wear locs. She said the CROWN Act’s signing means that people with textured hair can now spend money on styles that embrace their natural do’s, rather than an “oppressive economy” of styles like fake hair or chemical relaxers.
“This is changing not only the civil rights and understanding-of-self-love game, but it’s also going to change the economy,” Edwards, also a bill cosponsor, said, “and how ... we can invest, pay for, and get more natural hairstyles done.”
State Representative Brandy Fluker Oakley, a Mattapan Democrat, said the natural hairstyles she wore as a law student in Atlanta were “not going to fly in the city of Boston.” She spent many hours straightening her hair to represent clients as a Boston public defender because “public perception matters.”
“What you find today isn’t just a piece of paper, it’s not just symbolic,” said Fluker Oakley, a bill cosponsor. “It’s a game-changer for Black women and those that have natural hair all throughout the Commonwealth.”
Similar legislation still faces an uphill battle on the national level. In March, federal legislation, cosponsored by US Representative Ayanna Pressley, to officiate the CROWN Act passed in Congress along party lines with a 235-189 vote. It awaits a vote in the US Senate.
Pressley, who wore Senegalese twists before losing her hair to alopecia, said in a statement Tuesday that she’s proud to see Massachusetts make history with the signing of the law.
“For far too long, Black folks have been punished for the hair that grows on our heads and the way we move through and show up in this world—enough,” Pressley said. “... from our young students with braids to job applicants with locs, this law is meaningful protection for our natural hairstyles.”
The Biden administration has also voiced support for the federal bill, saying in a statement that it “looks forward to working with the Congress to enact this legislation and ensure that it is effectively implemented.”