Illinois passes bill prohibiting hair discrimination in school


Illustration by Janna Lee

The Jett Hawkins Law prohibits schools from enacting dress codes that target hairstyles and hair textures associated with race and ethnicity.

Yola Mzizi, Reporter

A new state law prevents schools from enforcing discriminatory rules against hairstyles historically tied to race, ethnicity and hair texture.  

The Jett Hawkins Law, which went into effect in Illinois  Jan. 1, includes protection against dress codes that target historically Black hairstyles such as braids, locs and twists. The law is named after five-year-old Gus ‘Jett’ Hawkins, who was told by the school administrators at Providence St. Mel School located on Chicago’s West Side that his braided hairstyle violated the school’s code of conduct.

Northwestern psychology Prof. Onnie Rogers, who co-authored They’re Always Gonna Notice My Natural Hair: Identity, Intersectionality and Resistance Among Black Girls, said she believes this law is a step in the right direction in ensuring that Black students feel welcomed and affirmed in school. 

“It is a really powerful statement to have a law that protects Black children, specifically Black girls,” Rogers said. “Typically, we have laws that ignore the unique experiences of Black girls. This law takes into account our unique experiences of sexism and racism.”

Rogers said that despite the progressive nature of this law, she knows from decades of lived experience that an anti-discrimination or anti-racism law does not rid our society of discrimination or racism. Rogers says she thinks this is a monumental achievement, but there is still much work to be done in ensuring that schools are a more inclusive space for Black children. 

Weinberg senior Lovette Coleman is a Chicago Public Schools alumna. She said even unwritten rules and expectations for her hair affected her educational experience.

“There wasn’t anything within our school code of conduct that stated that you couldn’t have certain hairstyles, but it was definitely something that was talked about, and I constantly felt the pressure to change my hair,” said Coleman. 

Coleman said she was often encouraged by school administrators to straighten her hair for college interviews. 

Communication senior and former CPS student Eden Strong said they are not very confident in the changes the new law will bring.

“I’m hopeful that people will take this legislation as a sign to not discriminate in that way, but I am not really confident that this will mean a big change in the day-to-day because the people who hold these ideals will still engage in this form of discrimination,” they said.

Strong added they think the best way for student voices to be heard on this issue is by taking discrimination cases to court themselves, but many students do not have the resources to do this. Rogers says that as a society, we must maintain vigilance and recognize the various forms hair discrimination can take. 

“If we only define hair discrimination with this very specific benchmark, through dress codes, we miss the lived experiences of Black students,” said Rogers. “We need to acknowledge racism and we need to be quick in to responding to white supremacist and patriarchal norms that situate certain hairstyles and hair textures and presentations as normal and good and others as deviant and bad.” 

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