Republican legislator’s bias proves hairstyle protection bill is needed

North Pole Republican Rep. Mike Prax holds up a picture of a skinhead to ask a bald white testifier how he was supposed to tell the difference between them during a hearing on March 14, 2022.

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“When is it OK for us to feel threatened?”

That was one of North Pole Republican Rep. Mike Prax’s many questions during Monday’s hearing on House Bill 312—legislation that would protect people’s right to wear natural hairstyles at schools and on the job (with exceptions where it’d be a health or safety issue)—making the point that the legislation is sorely needed.

The legislation, which was sponsored by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr, is an effort to specifically protect BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) people from the kind of actions that led to a 16-year-old high school wrestler Andrew Johnson being forced to cut his hair moments before a wrestling match by a white referee. Several people testified in support of the bill, arguing it goes a long way to protecting the culture and health of BIPOC students and employees. The U.S. Army adopted similar changes last year to accommodate BIPOC soldiers.

It’s a matter of health, culture and basic existence, argued Alyssa Quintyne from Fairbanks, and BIPOC people should not be forced by schools and employers into hairstyles that simply make their white colleagues feel comfortable. Like many other testifiers, she noted the legislation doesn’t force anyone to love BIPOC hairstyles.

“The issue isn’t necessarily what people think of us or how they perceive us. The issue comes in when that person that has a particular perspective of us or feeling of us is in a position of authority over us and lets that perception change the outcome of that job interview, class, whatever it is. It is the reason I’ve experienced so much is because people’s right to discern me, people’s opinions and perspective is more legally protected than my actual right to exist the way that I exist,” she said, adding that it’s not just about cultural representation and expression but about keeping hair healthy. “We braid and twist and lock our hair to keep our hair neat, to keep it healthy. … This is something to keep our bodies neat. When we let these perspectives get in the way of that we are literally harming people’s right to exist. What’s more important? Somebody’s right to discern or somebody’s right to exist?”

Rep. Prax seemed more than ready to make the point as he gave long, rambling examples of a time when he and his son were felt uncomfortable around a man his hair in locks on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. “He looked, to me, scary. We went around him. We didn’t want to associate with him.” He then went onto question a bald testifier about how he was supposed to tell the difference between him and a skinhead.

“I would say I think that the purpose of this bill is people are not judged by their hairstyles but rather by their actions,” replied Planned Parenthood’s Morgan Lim. “If that person were to be a member of a skinhead or neo-Nazi movement that they would be judged specifically on that. … We all seek not to be judged by our hairstyles.”

Danyelle Kimp, the president of the Alaska Coalition of BIPOC Educators, testified in support of the measure. He referenced the incident with the wrestler Andrew Johnson, noting discrimination is still very much an issue in schools and workplaces, including the committee.

“Those microaggressions even come in the form of an earlier comment from a gentleman legislator who said a man with locks was scary to him, right? You can’t change how he feels, I understand that, but HB 312 can help prevent new discriminatory actions or inactions toward the man with the locks because someone thought he was scary,” he said. “My son wears locks. HB312 will help protect him and other Black kids. … Just because you won’t be able to discriminate against BIPOC folks for their natural hairstyles, I say too bad, so sad.”

Prax replied by asking if there were a set of pictures, he could provide to illustrate natural hairstyles so he could know what’s acceptable and what’s not.

“Is there some boundary that those of us who feel threatened, honestly, by certain people and certain appearances of people,” he asked. “When is it OK for us to feel threatened and when should we react by accepting?”

As Kimp had said earlier in the testimony, the legislation isn’t about requiring white people to change their minds about BIPOC people’s existence, but about ensuring that BIPOC people don’t suffer for it in school and in the workplace. As for the request for photographs, Kimp said it shouldn’t fall on people of color to help educate everyone else on what’s racist and what’s not.

“The burden shouldn’t always be on people of color, the folks who are historically repressed,” he said. “Do some digging, get into it, find out for yourself, hangout with some Black folks, you know, and just get to know and understand what’s going on.”

Follow the thread: The House Education Committee hears HB 312

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