Milwaukee, WI – Years ago, there was a video circulating on social media of a Black boy at a wrestling meet, standing solemnly at the edge of the mat. He looked like he was fighting back tears while a white woman cut his locs off. The camera zoomed in and the boy was indeed crying, tears streaming down his face. Later, we learned the story of what happened. The boy was Andrew Johnson, and he was told his locs did not meet regulation standards and he could either cut them off or forfeit his match. He was given 90 seconds to decide, and he chose to compete. The locs came off and he completed his match. A lawsuit was then filed and later thrown out, accusing the school of racial bias. Trauma stemming from racial bias is something all people of color live with in the United States, whether a racist judicial system chooses to scoff at it or not.
Ida Nelson, mother of 5 kids and Illinois resident understands this better than anyone, who just worked to have the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act become law in her home state. The CROWN Act is a California law which prohibits discrimination on hair style and hair texture for both categories under the FEHA and California education code. Her then four year old son, Gus “Jett” Hawkins IV was showing off his braids one day, eager to do so at school. Ida got a call from the school saying his braids were deemed “unprofessional” and a “distraction” at the school. “This is bullying, and it is the worst kind because although all bullying is inexcusable, the kind that happens from an adult to a child is the kind that always goes unnoticed or unpunished”, says Ida.
“When my daughter was in high school, she wrote a paper about microaggressions related to hair. That was years ago. There was a time when I was out of work for a long time. I had an interview for a corporate office job, and i had a style at the time called “faux-locks”. I had an internal battle where I knew I wasn’t going to get that job with the hairstyle I had. I decided to straighten my hair when I applied for the job, and I didn’t get it anyway. I decided at that moment I would live my truth and never straighten my hair for anyone again”, Ida asserts. She sent her son to an all Black school, where Jett would see kids that looked like him and he wouldn’t be exposed to microaggressions. While the student body was Black, the administration was not, and they showed their cultural ignorance.
The autobiography of Malcolm X told of a time when the great Civil Rights leader burned his scalp with lye in order to achieve straight hair – a style worn by Little Richard and many others at the time.
“It is important to understand why he did that in the first place. Eurocentric beauty standards have always been the norm in the United States, as well as the only acceptable or “professional” styles”, she tells me. “My hair has been heat and chemical treated since I was 6 years old. It changed the texture of my hair, and I gave everything up besides natural hair care in 2013. I am just now starting to feel the actual texture of my hair.” she adds.
The concept of beauty by American standards has been formatted to fit a narrative that people of color will never be able to live in this box. Anti-Blackness is global, something that is still woven into American consciousness. Ida has spearheaded the movement into getting the Crown Act passed in Illinois, and it is a step towards eradicating that notion, through legislation. She is hoping that more states follow suit and that it becomes something federal.
“A child’s self esteem is affected at an early age. Children should be focused on growing without questioning their self worth right off the bat. People need to be outraged,” Ida says. She describes her mission, a crusade to get the Act passed with all the help she can get. It started with her sharing posts on social media, which garnered much support, which gave way to writing letters on her part and from her community. Enough noise was made where Senator Mike Simmons of Illinois sent Jett a personal letter apologizing for what he had gone through. He then told Ida that he would introduce a bill to pass the CROWN Act in Illinois, with no guarantee that it would be passed. This was not enough for Ida and she told him “You WILL get it passed.” Through community efforts and letters, the act was passed.
Before we end the interview, Ida tells me one last thing. “It’s very important to note that this is not about me. While I do have trauma relating to experiences with my hair, it is more about this not happening to kids anymore”.