Metro, Column

A Move to End Natural Hair Discrimination

At the Oct. 2 City Council Meeting in Boston, Councilor Lydia Edwards ardently put forth a resolution to prevent discrimination against natural hairstyles. This was in support of already pending legislature that was filed by Steven Ultrino, a state representative, on Sept. 18. 

A productive discussion. A sensical outlook. If only it weren’t for an issue that should have been put to rest a long time ago. California, the first state to outlaw racial discrimination based on hairstyle, took this action less than a year ago. New York followed close behind by amending the Human Rights Law and Dignity for All Students Act to add new subsections to the definitions of race and include “traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to hair texture and protective hairstyles.”

The proposal of this legislation may seem like a revision that’s come a bit late—an “oops, what’s this policy still doing here?” Edwards, however, exposes just how alive the issue really is. Just two years ago, Deanna and Mya Cook served as an example of how this discrimination plays out and disproportionately affects black girls. 

When the twins wore their hair professionally braided to Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Mass., they were castigated and extensively punished. The situation has drawn attention from the NAACP, as frustrated parents and community members have continued to fight against racial ignorance and discrimination. The Cook girls were not the only victims, as other incidents around the nation have prompted the passage of the long-overdue legislation in New York and California. 

Historically, black women have attempted to conceal their naturally curly hair with unhealthy and chemically-altering straightening techniques. This was the result of marginalization and criticism they received for what was commonly considered “kinky” hair. Starting in the 1950s and continuing into the late 1960s, some people in the black community began to wear their hair unstraightened, a radical transgression given the cultural climate. The movement began with black entertainers, culminating in the iconic Afro style of activist Angela Davis. 

For almost two decades, the hairstyle was largely connected with the Black is Beautiful movement and a rejection of racism. While its presence today is less political, its historical significance is summoned by current activists against hairstyle discrimination. Shonda Rhimes, an acclaimed producer, writer, and author, has teamed up with Dove to drive positive change through panels, workshops, and promotions. 

“I’m trying to create a world in which they’re [children] seeing images of themselves as much as possible …” Rhimes said in an interview with The Root. “They need to see those images and see those women and understand that that’s what beauty is, too.”

To counteract this progress with racially targeting policies is dually harmful when considering the importance of self-expression and identity building in high school. This is undoubtedly a formative time for children, and to blatantly repress such a fundamental part of one’s identity is extremely damaging to self-perception and confidence.

“I want you to understand what a slap in the face those kinds of regulations are from the very outset,” Edwards said. 

As a black woman who herself has abandoned chemical treatments in favor of her natural hair, Edwards draws on her own experience to put a face to the impacted group. Her research has shown that the majority of the ways in which black girls are discriminated against at school are through dress code violations. At the crux of her argument is that the overregulation of hair styles disproportionately affects black girls, which leads to a decline in school attendance, due to the penalizations. As Edwards recounts, to punish somebody for the way her hair grows from her head is truly a breach of liberty in every respect. 

“This isn’t just about freedom of expression, this is about Lydia being able to go to school,” Edwards said.

Unlike some of the more implicit forms of discrimination that manifest in latent and subtle ways, hairstyle discrimination disenfranchises its victims in an awfully tangible way. Kim Janey, the councilor for the Seventh Congressional District, joined the City Council discussion with her uncontested support. She was on the front lines at the Malden situation and has seen first-hand the dire need for preventative measures. 

To address the severity of the situation head-on, Edwards expresses explicit desire to get this resolution passed and attain signatures from State House Representatives in support.  

“The City of Boston is committed to free expression and the equal treatment of all people regardless of their racial or ethnic origin,” the motion says.

If we are to live by these values, we cannot stand idly by while they are disregarded in our own school districts. In a day and age where we should be celebrating the natural beauty and intrinsic value of our backgrounds, it is hard to believe that these offenses rudely and persistently take place.  

Thankfully, the bill attained a unanimous vote, marking a success for Edwards and an even greater one the City of Boston. This city is in a position to lead—its people have the ability to set precedents from the streets that have set so many before. It is our duty to make progress, and we owe thanks to the dedicated civil servants who facilitate it each day. It’s a reminder of the persisting issues in Boston that demand our attention and long overdue legislation.

Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

October 15, 2019