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‘Well, You Know I’m American Too?’: Outraged Mom Sues White Teacher Who Said Black Girls Hair Was ‘Ethnic’ and Not ‘American’ Nor ‘Normal’ Like Hers

A Farmingville, New York, mother has filed a discrimination claim against a white teacher accused of categorizing a Black teen’s hair as “ethnic” and her own hair as “American” and “normal.” The parent said her daughter, as the only African-American girl in the class, was left feeling embarrassed by the teacher’s comments.

The 17-year-old senior was attending a cosmetology class at Sachem East High School in Long Island, New York when the alleged comment was made about her hair in the fall semester of 2022.

The remarks made the teen feel un-American, the suit claims.

A Long Island mother has filed a discrimination lawsuit against a teacher who called her daughter’s hair ethnic. (Photo: Getty Images)

The girl’s mother, Cindy Covington, hired civil rights attorney Andrew Lieb, who filed a discrimination complaint on behalf of her teen with the New York State Division of Human Rights. The claim asserts her teen’s civil rights were violated by the teacher.

During the class, hair texture came up, and the teacher said the teen’s hair was “ethnic.”

“[My daughter] said, ‘So, if my hair is ethnic hair, then, you know, what type of hair do you have?’ And she told my daughter she had American hair, she had normal hair. She said to her, ‘Well, you know I’m American too?” Covington explained to CBS News.

“There are different textures of hair,” Covington said.

“I would love to know — what is American hair?” she continued. “What is that? I really would love to know. What is ‘normal’ hair?”

According to Covington, despite her reporting the remarks to the school’s principal, this was not the only time the teacher made the comments.

“There have been incidents after incidents in reference to where she’s been made to feel uncomfortable as the only brown girl in the classroom,” Covington stated to local news outlets.

The teacher went on to explain that “ethnic” was the terminology used in the industry. Covington believes the term is antiquated and should not be used in the classroom.

As a result of conversations like this, Covington said her daughter “felt like she was the outcast in the classroom” and no longer felt comfortable in the class. The mother said the teen also started asking to wear wigs to school and requesting to have her hair “straightened.”

Covington believes the teacher’s comments violated New York’s CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.  In the Empire State, hair discrimination can be seen as a form of racial discrimination.

Her lawyer says this is a clear circumstance of discrimination that subversively implied something was wrong with the teen’s natural state.

“The contrast to ‘American’ or ‘normal,’ saying they’re non-normal, non-American,” Lieb stated.

In an interview with Long Island News 12, Lieb said the comments also discouraged the teen’s career path.

“[The teacher] got told she’s not like everyone else, she got told that she’s an outcast, she got told that she has different hair, and she should work in different place when she’s going into cosmetology,” Lieb says.

He also believes the school had a duty to step in and stop this form of discrimination but did not.

“The mom explains it to the school, for them to do nothing about it and it happens again implies that they were deliberately indifferent to her complaints,” Lieb added.

The complaint seeks to have the teacher and school apologize for the comments. It also is pushing for sensitivity training to be implemented so that the teachers and others will understand the nuance of words and their impact on different communities.

Lastly, the family is asking for legal damages to be paid.

After a complaint like this is filed, the Division of Human Rights typically gears up for an investigation. In this case, if Covington’s claims are valid, the agency will attempt to mediate a resolution or proceed to a trial. 

Christopher Pellettieri, the superintendent of the school district, released a statement regarding the complaint.

“At this time, the District has not been formally notified or served with any official paperwork regarding this complaint. We have publicly heard about this matter through various media inquiries and are reviewing the alleged complaint,” said Pellettieri.

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