St. Louis Lawmaker Seeks Ban on Black Hair Discrimination

click to enlarge Rep. LaKeySha Bosley. - TIM BOMMEL/HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS
Rep. LaKeySha Bosley.

For most of her life, Missouri Democrat State Rep. LaKeySha Bosley battled her own hair. In the third grade, she remembers how her mother spent hours hot-combing it into submission the night before a school picture day — and how it poofed back into shape in time for the photo.

"It wasn't culturally accepted," says Bosley, whose district represents parts of St. Louis. Earlier this month, she pre-filed a bill that would ban racial discrimination related to Black hairstyles in publicly funded schools and education programs.

The bill is personal for Bosley. In an interview, she recalls the lessons she took from her school's dress code: That her natural 4c hair was unacceptable, "nappy or unkempt and unclean." As she grew up, she continued to flatten her hair. It was an attempt to appease a culture where being accepted, she learned, also meant looking less like herself.

"When I was younger, it was like this constant reminder," she recalls. "I needed to straighten my hair in order for my hair to be manageable, to just be viewed as pretty."

Bosley decided to stop straightening her hair by the time she finished college, but in 2017 and 2018, as she embarked on a campaign for a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives, the then-25-year-old candidate ran into another version of discrimination against natural Black hair: As Bosley knocked on doors, "rocking my puffs," she encountered prospective voters who didn't take her seriously. Others asked her if she was old enough to run.

It was a problem for a candidate trying to introduce herself and her ideas to voters. Tired of seeing her natural look becoming a distraction, Bosley started wearing a wig of long, straight black hair, "to try to take away that conversation," she explains.

For a time, this wig-straightened version of herself became her public persona as a candidate — and it was this version preserved in her campaign portrait, in which she stood in a businesslike pose on a St. Louis street, smiling confidently beneath locks of straight hair that was not hers.

Today, she looks at the photo with regret.

"I wish I wouldn't have taken that picture with that wig, because it fed into that narrative that we can only be presentable if our hair is straightened," she says.

Bosley says she's left that version of herself in the past. After she won the 2018 election to represent Missouri's 79th District, she took to the House floor in her natural hair. She did not bring the wig with her to Jefferson City. Her official legislative portrait is roughly half afro.

Bosley's bill, named the CROWN Act as part of a national anti-discrimination campaign by the same name, isn't the first effort to seek a ban on Black hair discrimination. A similar bill passed the Missouri House last year but never made it to the Senate. Nationwide, versions of the CROWN Act have been passed in California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, Colorado and Virginia, while Kansas City's City Council approved a local version of the anti-discrimination law in October. 

Currently, the protections in Bosley's bill would extend only to programs or activities "conducted by an educational institution that receives or benefits from state financial assistance or enrolls pupils who receive state student financial aid."

But it is in school where Black children learn some of their first lessons about their relationship to the culture around them, and their hair. Bosley says Missouri students shouldn't have to worry about receiving detention when their braids clash with school dress codes or that they'll be forced to cut their hair to participate in athletics.

For Bosley, wearing her natural hair as a Missouri legislator is a point of pride, particularly when it means showing a group of visiting Black students that there is nothing unacceptable about natural Black hair and state politics.

If the bill is passed, Bosley hopes the protections can prevent future students from suffering what she'd experienced as a little girl waiting for picture day or, years later, the pressure she'd felt as a young Black woman trying to be taken seriously as a political candidate.

She recalls a moment in 2018 when she put aside that pressure, dismissing its limited view of what is "presentable." It was the moment she got rid of the wig.

"I was actively campaigning, literally walking through the streets. I was hot. I had this wig on, and I was sweating, and itching. And so I snatched my own wig off."

"It just didn't fit," she says with a laugh. "It was not who I was." 

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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