Monday, August 27, 2012

Does Hampton's decision to ban dreadlocks mean a person with them can't fit in corporate America? Change the culture

It’s amazing how many people want to talk about hair.  My blog from last week generated the most hits in the history of the Rev-elution (close to 10,000).  It received the most comments ever, and was reposted on Facebook by 195 people.
Most readers are irritated that the business school at Hampton University imposed a ban on male students with cornrows and locs.  It is significant to note that the sanction only applies to male students, a detail missed in my previous blog.  Some may consider the acceptance of women with locs and cornrows a small victory.  That factor merely draws greater attention to the difficulty black men face in gaining acceptance in mainline culture.
Hampton, and other HBCU’s, are faced with the tough challenge of proving they have adequately prepared students to assimilate into a job market where they are the minority. They are entrusted with proving students are different from what popular culture reflects as normative among black men.  Students may possess the grades that merit a job in corporate America, but what about the rest?
Hampton’s decision is held in contempt among those searching for ways to affirm and celebrate the unique culture of black America.  One way we do that is with hair.  Hair has always been used to measure a black person’s willingness to let go of afrocentric identity by placing the culture of business above everything else.
Be it the afros of the 70s or the braids of the 80s, black hair has been held in contempt due to the way it draws attention to black radicalism.  The movement toward celebrating black identity is correlated with embracing different ways to manage hair.  The journey has been filled with indecision.  It has been a work in progress.  The more black people seek to be free, the more they battle attacks against the way they use hair to reflect that freedom.
Thus, we have a case of conflicting agendas.  Hampton is in the business of preparing students for the world after graduation.  They have to prove to potential employers that they have trained students on the inside and out for corporate success.  Locs and cornrows are viewed as a form of rebellion indicating an unwillingness to play by the rules of the game.  Why do black people have to pick personal success over racial pride?  Why can’t we have both?
White women will argue they have to adjust to similar rules.  Their dress is monitored in a way that forces change.  White men contend that facial hair, of any type, is forbidden in corporate American. In other words, everyone has to play by the rules.  It’s not just a black thing, its part of the life of corporate America.
There is some truth to that assessment.  Most companies are searching for people who fit the corporate image.  The problem is with how that corporate image can serve in the dismantling of the celebration of legitimate cultural expression.  The point of my last blog was a simple one.  As a man who has locs, I take offense at any effort to curtail my right to celebrate my culture.  If it is a hairstyle, cut it off.  If it is more than a hairstyle, it’s difficult to let it go due to how so much of my identity is attached to the decision to loc my hair.
The matter of identity is complex, and often forces the question of how personal identity is supported and undermined by perceptions of identity.  How much of how a person understands their own identity is wrapped up in how other people view what that means?  If one becomes trapped in reconstructing their lives based on the assumptions of others, then the power of what it means to be a person is given to others to define.  A person should never negotiate their right to define what it means to be human.
The decision to ban locs uncovers the matter of acceptable black masculinity.  Black men are confronted with the obstacle of overcoming the negative images of other black men.  The business school at Hampton University hopes to prepare male students with the burden of proving they are different from the black men portrayed in popular culture.
It’s not enough to be educated, black men have to look the part of being educated.  They have to fight the assumptions made by those who meet them for the first time.  Black men are constantly fighting to overcome the mistakes of those who look like them.  Sadly, hairstyles and dress become variables in defining legitimacy within a culture that has loads of stereotypes to work through before giving you a chance. In essence, they have to prove they are not what you think you see when you meet them.
The business school at Hampton is one of many institutions fighting to prepare students to overcome the hostility and assumptions black men face when they are interviewed for jobs in corporate America.  Administrators are aware of the tough road facing those who graduate from their school.  HBCU’s were formed to bring legitimacy to those willing to make the transition into the white world of business and politics. 
The black Church was used to teach black folks how to dress in the world of white privilege.  The church taught proper conduct, how to speak and dress as a way to legitimize the work of the former slaves.  Hampton’s decision to ban locs and cornrows continues a long legacy of black institutions working to educate youth on proper conduct and dress in the world outside the black neighborhood.
Should we blame Hampton for the world our youth face? No.  I don’t blame Hampton. I blame the rest of us for failing to redefine legitimate culture for those outside the black community.  If the black community fails to embrace that which is meaningful, then how will others celebrate our efforts to cling to our own heritage?
There are divergent opinions related to what that means.  Some regard my locs as a foul thing that needs to be cut.  Others recognize it as my desire to connect to a long history of holy men who wore locs as a sacrifice to God.  My hair is more than a hairstyle.  It is part of my spiritual practice.  To ask me to cut them invalidates what it means for me to enter into a special bond with God in order to purge myself of all forms of vanity.
Yes, hair is a personal decision.  In some cases hair is used to define a person’s character.  Often that determination is measured with unfounded assumptions.  In some cases, the assumption is true. 
The only way around it all is to get past all that hair to get to know the person.  Maybe that takes too much work.  It’s easier to simply fit in with the corporate image than to invest the time in getting to know the person.
Could that be the problem?  

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