Steve Harvey recently hosted the Steve Harvey National Mentoring Camp for Black boys and invited several notable Black folk to pour into the young men. Yay! One of the mentors, educator Dr. Steve Perry, tweeted, “I witnessed 200 boys VOLUNTARILY cut dreads, braids & unkept frosh bc @IAmSteveHarvey @USArmy connected aesthetics to success. Powerful.” Boo.
Perry’s statement irritated me for a number of reasons. Obviously, connecting aesthetics to success, for him, means the boys did the right thing in voluntarily cutting locs, braids, and unkempt fros. I disagree. I’ve given some thought to the whole issue and there are several points I feel get left out of the conversation about Black hair in the workplace.
The rules of success for Black men are different than the rules for Black women.
It’s true that Black folk in general have had long, complicated histories with their hair. You only have to look at Terrence Howard’s conk to know this. But the last decade in Black hair has been transformative for Black women. Black men? Notsomuch. Technically, Black men normally wear “natural hair,” even if it is closely shorn. It’s still the standard.
Only more recently have brothers begun to eschew their biweekly date with their barber in favor of growing out their hair. This Black male “natural hair movement” is still pretty new. Some old heads consider a chunky Afro on a man “unkempt” if it’s not picked out to perfection. Dr. Perry likely belongs to that set. I’d wager that it’s going to take a bit of time for nascent ideas surrounding hair and Black men to become intergenerational. I don’t predict men my dad’s age asking for a Boosie fade any time soon.
Also consider that in the business world, conservatism often rules. No long hair on men, no beards. Those rules are automatically more stringent for Black men. (Think about it: White men don’t normally have buzz cuts, but the equivalent of a White male haircut on a Black man is essentially a less conservative short Afro.) Braids and locs would be automatically ruled out on Black men for the same reason flowing hippie hair on a White man would be. That is a “practical” reason to encourage Black men to cut their hair, if the business field they desire does not allow it.
Requirements become more racist when you start to ban texture-specific choices. It gets complicated when you tie in the stereotypes associated with Black men who wear their hair long. My husband is a chemist with a Ph.D. from an HBCU…and he has back-length locs. I have relatives who still see him as an anomaly of an intelligent, upstanding Black man with locs. He’s the outlier of success to them. Otherwise, Black men with locs and braids are InstaThugs, jobless and shiftless.
When you transition from telling Black boys, “Cut your hair to abide by your company’s dress policy” to “Cut your hair so White folks don’t label you a thug,” you absolutely send the wrong message. That message tells boys they are to conduct themselves primarily in opposition to a stereotype. It’s shadowboxing with boogeymen they can never knock out. But it is a message Black people have bought wholesale for centuries. Angling for respectability prioritizes the White racist imagination in the search for Black excellence. We should rather seek excellence as a matter of course.
Woke or not, Black people do what they have to do to keep the lights on.
I think “progressive” Black people (or those who consider themselves as such) find things about Blackness to take a stand on and then become outwardly dogmatic. Hair becomes a battleground. Names are akin to Black fists. As we grow in our understanding of who we are in this world, we adjust certain things about our lifestyles to demonstrate it.
But woke Black folk can be more pragmatic than we often let on. A friend of mine abbreviates her “ethnic” first name and defaults to her mainstream middle name on her resume. It keeps her employed. One of the most pro-Black women I ever knew would slap a wig over her natural hair on job interviews. She had no illusions about the beauty of her hair; she just wanted to get a job without being discriminated against.
Even though Dr. Steve Perry’s comments about Black hair are disappointing, I know people who disagree with him in theory but still cut their locs to get jobs in practice. Some of us are indeed “pro-Black enough” to say, “If they don’t want me with my nappy hair, I don’t want the position.” Others need a paycheck more than a principle. I fault no one for doing what they have to do in order to succeed against discrimination. As long as you know there’s nothing inferior about you. Cut your locs. Straighten your fro for the interview. Flip the script after you get the job, if you want.
Or don’t. I have gotten every job in my adult life since 2006 with nappy-%#* hair. I don’t straighten my hair for interviews, but I do twist it up into tiny twists and pin it into a bun. I save my Afro for my second week of a new gig.
Teaching Black children how to survive in a racist society doesn’t have one “right” solution. But what we’re NOT going to do is teach the babies that there is something inherently wrong with wearing Black hairstyles if you want to be successful. There is a marked difference between acknowledging discrimination exists and agreeing with the philosophy of anti-Blackness behind it.
Diversity is more than about brown skin–it is in thought, presentation, and skill. The aesthetics of brilliance has more than one look. We are not churning out factory Black boys. Success is Perry in his close cut and Doo-Rag waves, RGIII in his out-of-style cornrows, and it is my husband in locs and a suit. Wouldn’t the message of success be far more powerful if Dr. Perry showed pride in as many boys choosing to keep their locs, braids, and fros, as he did for the ones cutting them? If the aesthetic of Black success means shaving off symbols of Black pride, then it is but failure by another name.
Do you agree with Dr. Perry or no? Have you ever been forced to change your hair to find a job?