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Barbers, Springfield School Committee member voice support for Mass. hair discrimination proposal

Massachusetts could soon become the latest state to ban hair discrimination. Slightly different proposals have unanimously passed both the state House and – as of Thursday – the Senate.

Clarence Smith has been cutting hair for 19 years at The Final Touch barber shop in Springfield’s Mason Square. He said he cuts all types of hair and is especially proud to style curly and kinky hair.

Smith said Black culture has progressed in a way where Black people are feeling more comfortable to wear their hair naturally.

“A lot more of my customers are getting the locks and they're getting extensions and they're going back to our roots. It's a beautiful thing,” Smith said, adding that Black hairstyles have not always been accepted by white employers and colleagues.

Ajalon Williams, another barber in the shop, said people with coarse hair often do not have the option to wear it naturally, because that is not the professionally accepted style.

“You see people getting relaxers and texturizing and all this stuff to make our hair more like the white man, you know? And it sucks,” Williams said.

Williams has been working in the business for six years and has heard a lot of stories. She said her Black clients have been mistreated at work for how they style their hair.

“It's mind-blowing to me that this is even something that's being passed or something that has to be a conversation, because it shouldn't be," Williams said. "You should hire this person whether they have wicks or not.”

Several states including New York have already implemented their own versions of The CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act. It is a bill in Congress seeking to ban discrimination based on a person's hair texture or style. The act passed the U.S. House, and awaits a vote in the Senate.

The version Massachusetts is considering prohibits hair discrimination in the workplace and in schools.

 LaTonia Naylor, a member of the Springfield School Committee, with her daughters (from left) Melodie, Patience and Naomi.
LaTonia Naylor
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Submitted
LaTonia Naylor, a member of the Springfield School Committee, with her daughters (from left) Melodie, Patience and Naomi.

Natural hairstyles have come into question at work and in school

LaTonia Naylor is a member of the Springfield School Committee. She said the majority of students in the district are Latinx and Black, so they’re used to seeing and wearing natural styles and not being judged for it.

“I see kids walking in with their natural hair all the time. I didn't see that so much three or four or five years ago and definitely not 10 years ago,” Naylor said. “I think in a lot of ways here in Springfield, we have definitely allowed our kids to realize your uniqueness and your natural state is beautiful and they are embracing that.”

Naylor is also on the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and said there are hair discriminatory situations she’s heard about through her role.

“The females have been not allowed to participate in certain sports or have not been allowed to go to school because it was considered not to be part of the dress code, because they had their hair in dreads or they had their hair natural and they wanted their hair to look a certain way to be able to come into the school,” Naylor said.

This legislation stems from a Malden charter school that banned hair braid extensions in 2017. Two girls — Deanna and Mya Cook — were given multiple hours of detention and the school even threatened to suspend them just because of their hair.

Attorney General Maura Healy stepped in, telling the school to stop punishing the girls and remove the policy, which it did.

 Ajalon Williams, also known by her barber name, Snacks, shaving a customer at The Final Touch barber shop in Springfield.
Nirvani Williams
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NEPM
Ajalon Williams, also known by her barber name, Snacks, shaving a customer at The Final Touch barber shop in Springfield.

Ajalon Williams at the barbershop said that the process of maintaining coarse hair takes a lot of time and effort. She said it’s stressful when people who aren’t in the community don’t understand this process and then expect people with coarse hair to change themselves.

“The coarse community hair, Black, Hispanic, you know, just anybody with coarse hair, they always have to switch it up,” Williams said. “You always have to change it. I always have to have my wig and my lace front laid so that when I go to work, it's not peeling up. I have glue in my bag so I can make sure it's down and stuff like that.”

LaTonia Naylor said she wants to raise her daughters in a world where they can feel comfortable choosing how they want to wear their hair — be it naturally or straightened.

“They love the beauty of their hair, but I taught them what I wasn't taught — that you're beautiful the way you are,” Naylor said. “You're beautiful with your lovely hair. You figure it out, you embrace it. You be unique with your hair…because I learned that along the way and it's empowering.”

Now that versions of the bill banning hair discrimination have passed the House and the Senate, the legislation could soon be headed to Gov. Charlie Baker, who has indicated he supports the proposal.

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.
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