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Baker signs Crown Act, banning hairstyle discrimination at school, work in Mass.

Deanna, left, and Mya Cook, with their mother Colleen, at WBUR in 2017. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Deanna, left, and Mya Cook, with their mother Colleen, at WBUR in 2017. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Legislation to ban discrimination based on natural and protective hairstyles — such as Afros, cornrows or tightly coiled twists — in workplaces, school districts and school-related organizations in Massachusetts was signed into law Tuesday by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

Black women in particular have faced pressure in school and on the job to alter their hair to conform to policies that are biased against natural hairstyles, according to supporters of the law.

The bill had been unanimously approved by the House and Senate. The new law defines natural and protective hairstyles as including “braids, locks, twists, Bantu knots and other formations,” and tasks the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination with enforcing the protections.

Policies that limit or prohibit natural hairstyles in all school districts are now banned. The law also prohibits hair discrimination in employment, business, advertising and public spaces.

Massachusetts is the 18th state to adopt a version of the the bill, known as the Crown Act, into law, legislators said.

The law has its roots in the case of a Massachusetts charter school that came under fire in 2017 for a policy of banning hair braid extensions.

The issue came to light when the parents of then-15-year-old Black girls said their twin daughters — Deanna and Mya Cook — were punished for wearing extensions, while white students hadn’t been punished for violations of hairstyle regulations.

After intense criticism, including from Democratic Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, the school abandoned the policy.

The sisters attended Tuesday's bill signing.

“It really took me back to that first time when I got my detention. I was thinking about how hard this would be,” Deanna said before becoming emotional, adding that “no one will go through that again.”

Mya pointed to what the law's supporters say will be its far-reaching effects.

“It feels amazing to know that we’ve changed so many lives,” she said.

In 2019, California became the first state to ban workplace and school discrimination against Black people for wearing hairstyles such as braids, twists and locks.

In March, the U.S. House approved a similar bill that would bar discrimination against Black people who wear hairstyles like Afros, cornrows or tightly coiled twists in society, school and the workplace. The federal bill would explicitly say such discrimination is a violation of federal civil rights law. President Biden has said he would sign the federal bill.

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who co-sponsored the House bill, praised state lawmakers for adopting 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," Pressley said in a written statement.

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