Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Malia Luarkie knew her big, curly hair stood out at Laguna Pueblo, where she was one of the few Black girls in class.
She was used to the teasing of other kids, she said, but a teacher’s remark – that she resembled a buffalo – hurt the most. After class, she cried.
“It just scarred me for life,” Luarkie, now 24, said in an interview.
She began straightening her hair after that, from elementary school into early adulthood.
Luarkie is now among the supporters of state legislation aimed at prohibiting discrimination in schools or employment based on certain hairstyles or cultural headdresses.
The debate comes two years after allegations that a Cibola High School teacher called one student a “bloody Indian” and snipped another’s hair. The incident triggered protests and litigation, the teacher resigned and Albuquerque Public Schools pledged to move forward with cultural sensitivity training.
But a few Democratic legislators say they want to do more – through passage of a law formally addressing discrimination based on natural or cultural hairstyles.
Seven other states, supporters say, have passed similar legislation, usually called the CROWN Act, or “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” A new Colorado law went into effect this week.
Much of the debate has focused on Black women, although New Mexico supporters say it would help protect Native Americans, too. About 3% of the state’s population is Black or African American, and about 11% of state residents are Native American, according to census estimates.
House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, the first Black floor leader in the Legislature, is part of a group of lawmakers working on legislation planned for the 60-day session that begins Jan. 19.
Stapleton said she was motivated partly by hearing about mistreatment of mixed-race children in schools.
“They are being teased horribly because of their hair,” she said.
The proposal was the focus of a legislative hearing earlier this week. No one spoke firmly against the idea, although debate emerged over whether the legislation was the right way to address the issue and which sections of law should be amended.
An early draft of the bill – distributed Monday – would prohibit discrimination, disparate treatment or discipline in schools based on a student’s race, culture or “use of protective hairstyles or cultural headdresses.”
The definition of “protective hairstyles” would include braids, twists, tight coils or curls, cornrows, bantu knots, Afros, weaves, wigs or head wraps. Cultural headdresses would include burkas and wraps related to a person’s cultural beliefs.
The definition of “race” in the law would also be amended to include hair texture and similar characteristics.
Similar definitions would be added to the state Human Rights Act, covering employment and settings outside school. But the early draft of the proposal didn’t make it clear how the definitions would be applied in the act to prohibit discrimination.
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat and retired law professor, said the goal is to ensure that job applicants, for example, aren’t required to cut their hair as a condition of employment. But the prospective employees, she said, would have to make the case that their hairstyle relates to their culture.
An employer, Sedillo Lopez said, should be able to require all employees to wear hair nets or tie their hair back, if the policy is applied evenly.
“If we want to eliminate racism in our society – which should be our goal – we need to eliminate those vestiges of racism that allow people to be treated differently,” she said. “It’s humiliating, especially in schools.”
Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said he wants more detailed language before deciding whether to support the proposal. There might be legitimate safety reasons, he said, for an employer to want short hair for employees working around certain equipment.
“I think I lean toward supporting this type of legislation,” Rehm said in an interview. “However, I want to see what it actually says prior to committing.”
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, said the proposal needs more work. But discrimination related to hair, he said, “is very sadly a legitimate problem.”
Luarkie said she began straightening her hair – with help from a flat iron – after her teacher’s remark in front of the whole class. But she became more comfortable with natural hairstyles when she was 19 or 20.
It’s cheaper, she said, and feels better.
Luarkie, who has Native American and African American ancestry, said her curly hair sometimes resembles the flowing locks of singer Diana Ross.
“It’s more freeing. It’s more me,” she said. “It’s who I’m supposed to be.”