Boston City Council President Kim Janey said the first time her great aunt straightened her hair was when she was a three-year-old flower girl at a wedding in 1968. Her father was livid, she said, as the new hairdo was a rejection of black pride in his eyes.
"This was my first introduction to the debate on black girls and women and how we should wear our hair," Janey said during a Joint Committee on the Judiciary hearing Tuesday. "This tension between natural hair that is free from chemical relaxers versus hairstyles that affirm our blackness."
Janey, along with Councilor Lydia Edwards, Rep. Steven Ultrino (D-Malden) and other advocates, attended a committee hearing Tuesday to lobby for a proposal (H 4295) that would prohibit discrimination based on natural hairstyles. Ultrino, the lead sponsor of the bill, said he doesn't file legislation unless it addresses a topic that could be detrimental to his constituents.
"Two of the students in my district, black students, were told that their hairstyles violated the school's dress code and they were treated unfairly because they refused to comply with this policy," Ultrino said. "Though the school has changed their policy per the direction of the Attorney General, this form of discrimination is still pervasive across many aspects in business and in schools."
A series of states have passed legislation banning hair discrimination in one form or fashion. California took the lead on July 3, 2019, and New York followed suit several days later. New Jersey passed a law in December.
The Massachusetts bill states that natural hairstyles are physical traits "central to individual dignity, autonomy, and personhood," and targeting an individual's natural hair and hairstyle connected to their race would be racial discrimination, under the bill. Prejudice towards African American students, employees, and individuals participating in public accommodations as a result of their hair texture and nature in which it grows and is styled would be illegal discrimination, the bill states.
Examples of illegal discrimination include a public or private school that prohibits "locs or braids," and prevents black student-athletes from participating in competition because hair is below their shoulders "but allows white student-athletes with long hair to tie it up," according to the bill. The legislation also includes a clause allowing the attorney general to pursue a civil action for "injunctive or other appropriate equitable relief in order to protect the exercise of rights secured in this act."
The creation of the bill stems from incidents constituents brought up to Ultrino including a months-long dispute in May 2017 between the Cook family of Malden and Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden.
Parents Aaron and Deanna Cook said their daughters went to school with box braids, which at the time were against school uniform and dress code policies. They received daily detentions and uniform infractions for their hairstyles.
Aaron Cook said he thought a simple meeting would fix the issue but instead he and his wife were "completely stonewalled" by the school. Attorney General Maura Healey eventually sent a letter in May 2017 to the school asking them cease enforcing or imposing discipline for violation of the uniform and dress code.
The legislation, Aaron Cook said, helps break down the barrier for African American people so communities do not need to fight a discriminatory view of hair.
"Our children were presented with a choice: conform to the discriminatory policy and don't make any waves about it, or fight for what we as a family felt was right and just and ensure that the policy was changed," Aaron Cook said during Tuesday's hearing. "It is that imperative workplaces and schools are educated and informed about natural hairstyles, and the adverse impact that discrimination has against people choosing to wear their hair natural and protected."