Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday signed into a law a bill that bars hair discrimination in schools, saying it will help ensure that students statewide feel “comfortable and confident in their own skin.”
But the mother whose son was an inspiration for the law — a 4-year-old Black child who was told his braids were a violation of school dress codes — said the moment “is bigger than just hair.”
“Our hair is an extension of who we are as a race and is deeply connected with our cultural identity,” said Ida Nelson, who had a front row seat at the bill signing, holding son Gus “Jett” Hawkins in her lap.
“This is one huge step towards improving the mental health outcomes for our children, as it ensures that they will be in healthier learning environments,” she said.
The governor signed the bill at Uplift Community High School, saying the new law will allow students to “embrace the power of their heritage rather than compromise their identities.”
“For so many people, how you dress and how you look is an expression of who you are,” Pritzker said. “For others, the choice is as simple as deciding what makes them the most comfortable and confident in their own skin.
“That should be the beginning and the end of the conversation. ... Nobody should be made to feel less than for how they express themselves, let alone miss out on school days, dances and after-school sports are how they style their hair.”
Ida Nelson characterized the Jett Hawkins Act as an important first step.
“The work must continue to proactively create safe spaces in schools where children of color are accepted completely and also in the workplace,” she said.
Nelson said it’s time for similar laws to be enacted nationwide because “our hair, our blackness, our existence deserves to be celebrated — not just tolerated.”
The new law would ensure the state’s schools don’t apply their school uniform or other dress code policies to hairstyles, “including hairstyles historically associated with race, ethnicity, or hair texture, including, but not limited to, protective hairstyles such as braids, locks, and twists.”
Under the law, which takes effect Jan. 1, the Illinois State Board of Education will be directed to produce educational resources about protective and natural hairstyles and host them on their website.
State Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, read about Jett’s story and the stories of other children who were barred from wearing their hair in braids or other natural styles and sponsored the legislation in part because “we can’t paper over such stinging injustices any longer.”
“I know from my own childhood what it’s like to be regularly belittled, humiliated isolated and shamed by adults in the school setting, and it’s something that we can no longer accept in Illinois,” said Simmons, who wears his hair in free-form locs.
“Black youth have been targeted and mistreated for far too long for expressing and honoring their heritage and their culture. We cannot be holding our youth to spoken, and unspoken standards, about how you’re supposed to sound act and, in this case, look.”