I can be happy to be nappy in Massachusetts
How I wear my hair is my business. Massachusetts decided it is now legal for me to do so.
Last week, lawmakers wrestled over whether to prohibit discrimination based on Black hair texture and hairstyles. The bill passed, making Massachusetts the 15th state to uphold the Crown Act (it stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”).
Congress made the same decision. Last week, the House passed the Crown Act in a 235-189 vote along party lines – which is to say, Democrats don’t mind if I wear my hair natural, but Republicans do.
The Cook twins inspired Massachusetts’ Crown Act. In 2017, Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden banned twins Deanna and Mya Cook from playing after-school sports and attending their prom because they wore hair extensions to school, violating school policy. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey stepped in on the twins’ behalf. Healey sent a letter to the school stating flatly that its policy “includes a number of prohibitions that are either unreasonably subjective or appear to effectively single out students of color.”
In a milieu of antiblackness, discrimination doesn’t stop at skin color. It includes our dress style, music, dance, speech and hair. Our children are being humiliated and punished because of racist rules and policies that discriminate against their hair texture and natural hairstyles.
The criminalization of Black hair starts early for our children, including in sports. In 2019, the video of a 16-year-old African American high school wrestler forced to cut off his dreadlocks to compete went viral. The referee, who was white, stated, “his hair and headgear did not comply with rules, and that if he wanted to compete, he would have to immediately cut his dreadlocks – or forfeit.”
In 2012, Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair had been the topic of a ton of e-chatter once she stepped onto the Olympic world stage. A tsunami of criticisms poured in about Gabby’s over-gelled and under-tamed ponytail. And – yes, that very touchy subject for African American women – her nappy edges. The complaint asked how any put-together and accomplished Black woman with fleecy wooly wild hair could be happy being nappy.
Five years earlier, radio shock jock Don Imus insulted the Rutgers women’s basketball team, calling them “some nappy-headed hos.” He struck a nerve. “Nappy,” used as a racial epithet as Imus did, is the other N-word in the African American community.
African American women and girls endure some of the most stringent standards concerning our hair, allowing workplaces, institutions and educators to discriminate against us without repercussion. Femininity and attractiveness are still integrally linked to long, straight, white women’s hair – a lauded Eurocentric aesthetic. Black women are constantly pushing away from it.
NBC Boston anchor Latoyia Edwards started to wear her hair naturally just last year.
“For years, I had straightened my hair as a news anchor at NBC10 Boston and other television stations, an arduous process I believed was an unwritten necessity for Black, female news anchors,” Edwards told boston.com. “This year, I decided it was time – beyond time – to wear my hair the way it feels right to me. For me, that meant braids. Regardless of the style, it’s long past time for Black girls and women to feel empowered to wear their hair how they choose – and for society to embrace them.”
Two years ago, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley revealed she had the autoimmune disorder alopecia, rendering her hairless. Pressley proudly and regally flaunted a bald head. Pressley, known for her signature Senegalese twists – her identity and political brand – was criticized as being “too ethnic” and “too urban.”
Black hairstyles are not criticized when they are being appropriated by white culture – especially when white celebrities wear our styles. In 1979, actress Bo Derek donned cornrows in her breakthrough film “10” and People magazine credited her with making the style a “cross-cultural craze.” In 2018, when Kim Kardashian posted a video of herself flaunting braids to Snapchat, she credited them as wearing “Bo Derek braids.”
While many African American women today wear their hair in afros, cornrows, locks, braids, Senegalese twists, wraps, or bald, our hair continues to be a battlefield in this country’s politics of hair and beauty aesthetics.
Black people have been in this country since 1619. It’s a shame the commonwealth and Congress voted on the legitimacy of my hair in 2022.
The Rev. Irene Monroe is a speaker, theologian and syndicated columnist. She does a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment called “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.