A 2003 graduate of Fisk University, Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is the founder and executive editor of HBCUstory, an online advocacy center presenting inspiring stories of the HBCUs past and present, for our future. She teaches in Tennessee State University’s department of history, geography and political science department. Follow her on twitter at @HBCUstorian.
For the past several weeks, the Hampton University School of Business’ ban on cornrows and dreadlocks for male students enrolled in its 5-year MBA program, has put the more than century-old black college at the epicenter of public debate. Many members of the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) community joined the heated discussion of “good” and “bad” hair. It is a part of a long intra-racial struggle with preference, prejudice and what it means to be black in America.
The timing of the conversation about Hampton’s policy however, was at best, less than ideal as the nation and the world, struggled with how to deal with the debacle resulting from comments over the hair of U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas. While there are similar historical realities, there is a divergence between the two, which if neglected, makes the discussion of one a disservice to the other.
The ugly comments made about Douglas’s hair were just that—ugly. In an age of inflated self-importance and the false courage offered by social media, any number of persons made vicious comments about Douglas’s hair. This does not ring true for all commentators, but even those who were well-intentioned often failed miserably in their attempt. Their vicious commentary and even their failed good intentions, rekindled the public debate over black hair; a debate media outlets hurriedly and happily encouraged.
In an effort to keep the debate ablaze, the media quickly turned its sights to the almost completely unrelated subject of Hampton’s more than ten year old ban on cornrows and dreadlocks for its male business students. The policy was instituted in 2001.
It is 2012, and the public is reacting to the media firestorm around Hampton’s policy as though it were instituted last week, last month or even last year. It is a policy that has worked for more than 10 years to prepare students for the realities of the real world. It is a policy, which in my mind is no different than ‘the talk’. No, not the ‘sex’ talk, the talk every black male in this country has concerning interactions with law enforcement.
“Don’t look nervously in the mirrors.” “Look straight ahead.” “Keep both hands on the steering wheel.” “If you are going to move, be sure to tell the officer what you’re doing.” This talk is unnecessary for white males, but it’s necessary in the black community and that’s why we have it.
The same is true for Hampton’s policy. HBCUs don’t have the privilege of being idealistic and neither do our graduates. Each year, Hampton sends its graduates out into the real world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if looks didn’t matter and we all were judged by only our qualifications and content of our character? The reality is that looks matter, even in the wonderful world of Disney. After nearly sixty years, the Walt Disney Co. finally announced this past January, that it would finally allow its employees at its two U.S. theme park resorts to grow beards or goatees. Mustaches have only been allowed since 2000.
While there is no written policy on locks, Disney’s policy on braided hair for males is crystal clear: “Conservative braided hairstyles for men without beads or ornamentation are permitted. They must be styled above the ears and cut above the collar and be neatly braided close to the scalp in straight rows.”
If one is truly offended by Hampton’s policy, don’t kill the messenger for telling its students that looks matter, reconsider supporting the policies of corporations like Walt Disney Co. whose “Disney Look” demands that employees, even those from HBCUs like Hampton, conform to their notion of all-American appearance. Hampton doesn’t have the luxury of denying that these realities exist. It is Hampton’s right and responsibility to ready its best and brightest to confront the realities of the wider world, including realities we wish weren’t real.