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Interview: Activist Cook Sisters in Their Own Words

The Homegirl Project interviewed Deanna and Mya Cook, the sisters who made headlines for ending a racist hair policy at their school, about about the importance of black hair for young girls and what comes next.

by Shermarie Hyppolite

Do you think that your school has improved in terms of racial issues after you fought them on the hair policy?

Deanna: I would say that the school has done what they were required to do. They haven’t really taken any steps in removing racial bias on their own. Things such as the picture of MLK were requested by me and Mya. We found it important that the school put up more visual representation of black culture around the school.

Mya: I think they want to believe that they improved, but they haven’t that much. The only thing I can say is that our school’s Parent Teacher Organization did an 'Around The World' event, but that is only because we told them that the school does not do a good job of representing other ethnicities. We also have a Civil Rights Coordinator, but I feel like that’s just for show, because since the introduction of the coordinator, the school has had an issue of racism among the students and nothing was done about it.

Why are braids important to black girls, and how did you feel about the school punishing students for it?

D: Black girls get judged for their hair almost immediately. When you walk in a room, one of the first things that is noticeable about a black girl is her hair. Whether or not it's in braids, twists, cornrows, it’s a part of who she is. Braids are what black girls are known for, it’s how they identify with their culture, my culture. Punishing black girls for wearing their hair in braids like this was so targeted, so discriminatory, there’s no other way to describe it.

M: Oh my gosh! The importance of braids for black females is that … well, it’s always been ours. It’s something that we can hold onto. It’s beautiful, empowering, it helps us tame our kinky curls and style them efficiently. It also protects our hair from breakage and damage while remaining stylish. When the school told me I couldn’t wear my braids, I was like … this is the best way I can connect with my culture because my parents are white. This is the only thing I can do to show that being a black girl is a part of my identity. For the school to tell me I couldn’t do that, I felt like something huge was being taken away from me.

Were you upset when the school told you that you couldn't wear your braids?

D: Definitely, definitely, definitely, yes I was. I remember at the beginning when my teacher first told me that I had to go down to the nurse because of my hair, my mind blanked. I was like, ‘What is happening right now?’ All the words she was telling me were hard to believe. They told me I had a week to take out my hair; do you know that it took me 12 hours to get my braids put in? I was appalled.

When standing up to the hair policy, were you afraid of retaliation from the school?

D: When we decided to tell the school that we weren't taking our hair out, I was calm at first. My parents were planning on going to the school to tell them that this rule was unfair and that this was one of the many hairstyles black girl choose to wear. Eventually I started to feel nervous as people at school started to hear about it and form their own opinions; that’s when the anxiety came in for me. Going to school everyday was actually really hard for me because so many people were looking at me a lot more, talking about me a lot more, and I wasn’t used to that. I actually had to go to the nurse for a few days because my anxiety was so high and I had trouble breathing and calming myself down.

M: I was not nervous because I knew it was going to happen. The more the school retaliated, the more I knew that we were moving in the right direction. Because if they think it’s wrong for me to wear my hair, then there’s something wrong with their policy, and I am going to wear my braids.

Was the school community was supportive when you two decided to go after the school for its hair policy?

D: My mom was actually bullied on Facebook by a lot of school parents. They would kick her out of the parent page and bury her comments with meaningless stuff so that her comments got ignored. They would leave nasty comments on her wall, nasty comments on her posts, they would say awful things about Mya and I. There was definitely a lot of hate online. It was mostly all white parents that were attacking us. Those who were against us weren’t really listening to what we were saying. We weren’t calling the school racist, we were calling the hair policy itself racist and discriminatory. People would take our words and completely twist it. Overall, I feel that the school community was not that supportive.

M: I would say the upper grade students and their parents were more supportive. The parents of the lower school were not supportive at all. A lot of people in our high school thought we were being ridiculous and that the school wasn’t racist. I didn’t feel like a lot of people really understood what was going on, I think they thought we wanted to start stuff. The few people who agreed with Deanna and I, it just felt good to know we were doing something like this and receiving support, even if it was only a little bit.

Why do you think hair policies even exist, especially since minorities often are the ones targeted with these policies?

D: I think hair policies exist just for control. Honestly, you know our school (MVRCS) likes to control every aspect of what we do, but I think policies like this are created to keep minorities as minorities. It’s just another way to keep us in this box.

M: To divide people. I don’t think there should be a reason to tell someone how to do their hair, because it’s not that serious.

Since the removal of the hair policy, have you continued to be passionate about activism?

D: I definitely enjoy helping out other people in situations like this. My mom got a bunch of emails from people who go to different schools and they would tell us about the racist policies in their student handbook as well. After what happened with our school, other schools were quick to change their policies. We have also gone to schools to talk to classrooms of children, sharing our story in order to help them. A lot of kids don’t know how to use their voices, so it’s good for them to see that when Mya and I raised our voices, we got results.

M: I really want to be a lawyer. I have learned so many things from ADL, LDF, NAACP. Because of the immense support I have received, it’s made me more confident in wanting to solve issues in the education system.

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