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Senator seeks to spare children pain with fight against hairstyle discrimination: ‘I understand what this feels like personally’

Simmons made history as the first Black person to represent his North Side area in the state Senate. Now, the rookie state senator is introducing a bill to address “hair discrimination,” racism related to a person’s hair.

State Sen. Mike Simmons in February.
Newly appointed state Sen. Mike Simmons walks into his district office in February.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

State Sen. Mike Simmons knows what it’s like to be “humiliated” in front of other kids because of a lack of understanding or acceptance of his hairstyle.

The North Side Democrat made history as the first Black person to represent his North Side area in the state Senate. Decades earlier, his family was one of the first Black families to move into the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Now the rookie state senator has introduced a bill to address “hair discrimination,” racism related to a person’s hair.

“I understand what this feels like personally, to be made to be humiliated in front of your classmates. To have authority figures belittle you and humiliate you in front of other people because of something that is God-given is entirely unacceptable,” Simmons said.

Simmons said his bill — which passed out of the Senate’s Education Committee Tuesday on a nine to four vote — is about responding to injustices he’s read about in the news both before and after becoming state senator in February.

A 4-year-old on Chicago’s West Side was forced to take out his braids after being “really excited” to get them, something Simmons said is “unacceptable” in 2021. A biracial student in Michigan also had to take out her braids, the senator said.

State Sen. Mike Simmons at a news conference in April.
State Sen. Mike Simmons at a news conference in April.
Rachel Hinton/Chicago Sun-Times file

“As somebody who wears his hair natural, I just think it would be irresponsible for me not to speak up and act on this and make a change to the policies that allow this to happen,” Simmons said.

“In 2021, we all want to be on the right side of history on this. ... I think a lot of people agree that these policies are outdated, and so what I’m trying to do is bring our policies into the current moment that we’re living in now, and so that means that young people should be allowed to wear their hair the way they want, the way their families ... want [them] to wear their hair.

“For young Black people, there should be nothing wrong with that and I think we should encourage that.”

State Sen. Mike Simmons in his district office in the North Side Edgewater neighborhood in February.
State Sen. Mike Simmons in his district office in the North Side Edgewater neighborhood in February.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The bill 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,” according to the language of the bill.

The Illinois State Board of Education would act as the oversight authority for the bill and, through an annual compliance probe, would check school handbooks to make sure that any discriminatory policies on hairstyles are removed, Simmons said.

Those handbooks are updated about every 12 months, making the enforcement strategy one that Simmons thinks will work well.

The North Side state senator said hair discrimination is something he experienced “a lot” in school and it “was not fun.”

Teachers would make very casual, inappropriate remarks about Simmons’ hair and other Black students’ hair — something others treated as normal.

The newly appointed senator has said he’s all about youth empowerment and supporting the next generation.

Simmons, who wears his hair in natural free form locs, said he hasn’t experienced hair discrimination since joining the state’s upper legislative chamber and has felt welcome. But before he arrived at this point in this career he experienced many moments when people made remarks to him that probably would have made their mothers “cringe.”

“I want the next generation of young folks, from all backgrounds, to have the same opportunities I had, and I don’t want them to have to go through some of the same things I went through,” Simmons said. “I don’t want them to think there’s something wrong with them or their hair, or like they can’t have that basic level of dignity.”