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Crowning Achievement

How one student untangled race-based hair discrimination

Deanna Cook '23

In my sophomore year of high school, I got called up to the teacher’s desk. The room was silent while other students worked, so everyone heard when the teacher broadcasted that my braids violated the school rules. The same thing happened to my twin sister, Mya. It was the beginning of a battle. The school kicked me off the track team, banned us from after-school activities (including prom), and handed us detention after detention, all because of our hair. As a woman of color, I wanted to wear my hair in braids as part of my cultural expression. But because of that, I was punished for months by teachers, administrators, and students.

I’m not really sure why people thought telling us to just give up would make us give up, but we didn’t. We organized protests and spoke to reporters. Some people would tell us they had never heard of discrimination based on hairstyles. On the other hand, we also heard from a ton of people all over the country who said, “I went through this privately on my own. My school did this to me, but we were forced to keep quiet about it.” We understood then that it was important to bring this issue to light and raise awareness that this type of discrimination does happen, and that it’s incredibly painful and destructive.

I’m not really sure why people thought telling us to just give up would make us give up, but we didn’t.

Massachusetts Rep. Steven Ultrino reached out to support us and asked me and my sister to share our experiences and advocate for passage of the CROWN Act (which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair) at the state level. It took five years, but just after completing my sophomore year at UMass, in July 2021, Massachusetts became the 18th state to pass the law, extending protections against hair discrimination to everyone in the commonwealth.

This experience has made my time at college feel even more important, because I know that armed with my education, I can push back against discrimination. People who go through what Mya and I experienced will now have clear legal rights to back them up, thanks to the CROWN Act. But there are many other places to make progress.

When it comes to any type of discrimination, we all have a role to play to stop it in its tracks. It’s especially important for people who don’t experience the type of hair discrimination that I went through to speak up, acknowledge that it exists, and become allies in the fight.

Deanna Cook ’23 is an anthropology major and business minor at UMass Amherst.

Why do we need the CROWN Act?

In Oregon , a high school volleyball player was forced to choose between cutting beads out of her braids or sitting out the game in March 2021. Since this incident, Oregon has passed the CROWN Act.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has represented cases including a 2020 Lawsuit against Barbers Hill Independent School District in Mont Belvieu, TX. Two Black students, D’Andre Arnold and K.B. Bradford, who had been growing out their locs for years, were told they wouldn’t be able to participate in regular classes or school activities due to the length of their hair. D’Andre was banned from attending his graduation. The school board voted unanimously to keep the discriminatory policy, and K.B. was only allowed to return to classes and school activities after a court order. Texas has not yet passed the CROWN Act.

In April 2022 , a 16-year-old powerlifter in Mississippi was told the beads securing the ends of her braids were against the competition rules. The student, Diamond Campbell, had to quickly remove the beads from her hair in order to be allowed to continue competing, despite the fact that powerlifting is not a contact sport. The Mississippi High School Activities Association has since changed its rules. Mississippi has not yet passed the CROWN Act.

A 4-year-old in Chicago was told he could not wear his hair in braids at his private school. The school had a policy banning braids, locs, twists, and other natural hairstyles on male students. “We’re at a point now where we have to take action,” his mother said. “People do not innately respect us and our culture.” Illinois has since signed the CROWN Act into law.

A 2020 study from Michigan State University and Duke finds that “Black women with natural hair are often seen as less professional and less competent and are less likely to be referred for job interviews.”