The high school kids in Buena Vista, NJ were all excited for the upcoming championship wrestling match. It was held at the Charles Johnson Memorial Gymnasium at Buena High School, named after the grandfather of one of the wrestlers, Drew Johnson. The elder Johnson had been a beloved caretaker at the school for decades.
It was bound to be a close encounter, as Oakcrest High and Buena were the top two teams in the Cape Atlantic League National Division and Buena had won the title several years in a row. The gymnasium was packed with classmates and jubilant families, and the teams were reinforced, ready to fight.
Before all matches, however, the referees carry out “skin checks” of the participants to ensure that no one has an infectious disease. Referee Alan Maloney noticed stubble on 16-year-old Drew Johnson’s chin and sent him to the locker room to shave. When he returned with a smooth face, Maloney told him he couldn’t wrestle anyway because he had dreadlocks.
Wrestling rules require participants to have hair “in its natural state”. Maloney said dreadlocks were unnatural. He gave Drew 90 seconds to decide whether to let them get cut or lose the match.
Drew was the best wrestler on the team, and he knew he would let everyone down if he retired. So he stood stoically while a white trainer grabbed some tape scissors and cut chunks of his hair. He fought back tears as the audience erupted in shouting “Noooo!” but no school official intervened.
When the dreadlocks were half gone, Maloney said the match could continue. Buena won the match and the title, but Drew Johnson will never be the proud, confident kid he once was.
The Johnson family is half African American and quarter Hispanic and white. The four children have different skin tones and hairstyles, as well as different abilities and personalities. But they and their parents strongly support each other. They are proud of Drew and furious at the way he was treated. So, it seems, there were plenty of them in the predominantly white city.
All sorts of things happened after that game when the video of the incident went viral. The white referee was suspended and later sued to get his job back but lost. Sports coaches across the country reviewed and revised the pre-game rules.
And New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman introduced federal legislation making it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their hairstyle or hair texture.
But he didn’t succeed the first time.
New Jersey’s only two Republican congressmen, one of whom represents Buena Vista, voted against it, as did too many of their conservative counterparts.
They are not necessarily pro-discrimination, believes Watson-Coleman. Republicans are just giving the Dems a hard time, as usual, she said, not allowing anything to come easily. The rapid passage of his bill required two-thirds support. By voting against on the first try, Republicans delayed enactment.
But Watson-Coleman was able to get it quickly through a committee and reconsidered. The House approved it on second try last week and now it is heading to the Senate, where Sen. Cory Booker is leading it. President Biden said he would sign it.
Drew Johnson’s humiliation wasn’t the only thing that prompted her to address the issue of hair discrimination. As a co-founder of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, she has seen numerous reports of housing, employment, entertainment, and other hair-based discrimination.
Hairstyles are important for cultural and individual identities, and unusual hairstyles cause no harm. They should never be grounds for discrimination and MP Watson-Coleman will make sure they are not.
An old assemblya of Jersey City, Joan Quigley is President and CEO of North Hudson Community Action Corp.
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