Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Hairstyles, Tattoos and Piercings

Being discriminated against is an agonizing sensation. The most dreadful aspect of it is when you think it just happened, but you lack clear evidence to verify what’s in your gut.

I’ve learned that it’s best not to assume that you were overlooked because of race, gender or some other external variable. More often than not, you didn’t get the gig because there was a more qualified person who got the nod. It has helped me to process rejection by reflecting on the countless people searching for the same thing as me-a freaking job.

The fact that I have to consider employment is enough to shake the foundation of my existence. I’ve become comfortable with a lifestyle that has afforded me the freedom to write what I want when I want and to support those in need of a person emancipated from the restrictions that come with having a boss. Writing and ministry have been my passion, but I’ve discovered that it’s time to consider employment due to a drop in book sales and folks not being enamored with revolutionary minded ministry.

Walking in that space has been a serious eye opener. I’ve discovered the pain of those who suffer with being unemployed and underemployed. I’ve discovered how it feels to need to go to the doctor but not being able to because you can’t pay the bill. I’ve seen the damage done to the emotions when you fail to receive interview after interview despite the fact that you have experience and education worthy of that position. That’s when the temptation comes to utter-‘they didn’t offer me the job because I’m….

Fill in your own blanks. Because I’m black, because I’m a woman, because I’m too old, because I’m gay, because I’m….each person has their own reason behind the rejection.

Mine are simple. On the one hand, it could be my columns that have attacked virtually everyone in the city. Shucks after writing in Durham, North Carolina for 14 years, there aren’t many that haven’t received the blunt of my criticism. It comes with the territory. It has been my job to press and attack and dig deeper and deeper into the untold side of the story. No apologizes for doing that. Someone has to take hold of being bold enough not to care how their words will impact their life beyond the words.

But, let’s not get it twisted. This is not a sob story about the lack of opportunities for me. It’s more about the reason people use for not being able to climb that wall standing in the way of our dream. My situation has me pondering the stupidity of the human spirit. I wonder, and help me if I’m wrong, if people reject me because of my hair. Could it be that these locs (for the record, I don’t call them dreadlocks because I don’t dread them) are standing in the way of my moving forward?

This possibility was brought to my attention by a close friend. I was told to cut my hair. It’s only hair, I was told. Don’t allow it to prevent you from moving forward. Could that person be right, and, if so, what are the implications to the vast others who are measured by things beyond what is on the resume?

“I was denied a job because of this tattoo,” a 24-year old, white female told me while pointing at a star shaped tattoo the size of a quarter. “They told me it’s a gang symbol.”

Wow! I responded in disbelief. Given the rise of tattoos among youth of this generation, is it possible that they have made a decision that will limit their employability? It’s more than hair that gets in the way. It’s piercings, tattoos, fashion statements and hairstyles that lead to potential rejection.

The conversation about the tattoo left me distraught due to the limits others can’t cut off. There’s so much that offends others that simply can’t be taken away. Leaving that conversation left me baffled beyond a response. It left me angry about the obvious-that it could be my own decision to loc my hair that stands in the way of any progress. If that is true, and I’m not sure if it is, all of my anger should be directed toward my own decision. It also means others have made decisions with their bodies that may hinder the fulfilling of their dreams.

It’s so much easier to blame it on being a black man in America. That excuse is comforting because of the prejudices of those who simply don’t know any better than to limit a person like me. It’s easier to overcome the dismissals when a person can’t look past some preconceived notion related to folks who look like me. I can walk in pride because the bigots aren’t smart enough to see the genius in me.

But dang, what happens when it’s all about the hair, tattoos or piercings? I decided to grow my locs notwithstanding my awareness of how it would draw negative reactions. I knew that black people as well as white folks would regard it as evidence of a dude walking within a counter culture. People want team players, not employees willing to stand out in the crowd as if to say ‘look at me, everybody look at me!’

But wait just a dog gone minute. Isn’t it all the same thing? Is to appropriate to validate the assumptions people make about a person with hair like mine? Is it right to discount the strengths a person’s credentials due to their hair?

To cut or not to cut, that is the question. Should I give people the power to force me to make that decision, and if I do, have I negated a part of what it means for me to walk in my own skin?

It’s easier to deal with discrimination when it’s something that you can’t get rid of. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the reason Clarence Thomas decided to be a white man. The difference is everyone knows he’s still black.

Sadly, cutting my hair won’t change who I am, even if doing so changes perceptions involving the character of the man beneath the hair. I suppose it’s best to be true to who you are, even if it causes others to see you in a different way.

It’s only hair, but for me it’s a spiritual decision. One more thing. I have a tattoo.


  1. As one with a part-time gig to support pastoral ministry, I sympathize (and with the hair too -- a decision I've faced occasionally over the years as well).
    Some of us are pushing the Mennonite Church to further develop a pastoral education and training model that gives quality theological grounding for part-time pastoral work in small congregations as an indefinite calling. It would aim at a de-professionalization of ministry while maintaining strong grounding and training. This kind of ministry identification as based outside of the market economy and employment framework has long precedent among Anabaptists, and many African-American churches. Though it's often been seen as a burden to endure for the past century, we may need to re-assess whether and how we might reappropriate it as an asset for churches, especially those with an egalitarian, laity-based ecclesiology.
    As traditional university and graduate work continues its spiral into unaffordability for more and more of the population, and resistance to the inequities of late-capitalist accumulation by the professional and investment classes remains muted, alternative tracks of formation and education for ministry will need to be developed anyway.
    Unfortunately, even an education plan that provides quality preparation for ministry along with training for a secular career (whether engineering, accounting, IT, nursing, agriculture, etc.) won't solve the problem of how writers attain revenue in this economy. That might be an even tougher hurdle!

  2. I have no advice about job hunting (I hate it and am notoriously bad at it, even in "good" times). In fact, I have no advice period.

    However, in my own life, I have found it to be better to be who I am and let the chips fall. The jobs I have gotten by conforming to what I thought *they* wanted have been a really bad fit. Seriously, I felt like I was in disguise every day of my short tenure in those positions. So, I only even attempt those kinds of jobs when my back is absolutely against the wall financially, and get out as soon as I can.

    Best of luck to you.

  3. CK,

    Keep digging bro. You're one of the smartest guys I've ever met. I would drop some cliches on you, but it ain't necessary. It's hard to believe you're contemplating things at this stage in the game. I'd love to talk bro. Hit me up on Twitter @xcelfellowship.....

    Frank Henderson