Hoodwinked: The Politics of Hampton and Black Hair

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.

Pictured l to r: Famous Hampton businessmen include Booker T. Washington, Robert S. Abbott, Percy Sutton and Charles E. Phillips.

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.

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Bahamian-born "HBCUstorian" Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is director of the Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. She a dynamic professional historian and a passionate Historically Black College and University (HBCU) advocate. A graduate of the historic Fisk, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee State universities, she is the founder and executive editor of HBCUstory, convener of the HBCUstory Symposium, and editor-in-chief of The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. A passionate believer in the historic mission and future vision for HBCUs, her primary areas of specialization are black higher education and the civil rights struggle.

3 COMMENTS

  1. HBCU’s should be leading this discussion instead of discriminating against our own. You work in a professional enviornment and you wear your hair in locks so you are proof that this policy is ridiculous. Hampton could use this as a teaching moment rather than creating a policy that further discriminates against African Americans. It seems that the faculty at Hampton are the ones hoodwinked.

    yourself.

    • Leading a discussion does not force a change of policy and it does nothing to address prejudice. Let me be clear here, if I thought that the way I fixed my hair barred me from opportunity, opportunity I needed to really make a difference, I’d have changed it. In fact, I didn’t lock my hair until I was all but dissertation for this very reason. Be mad at Hampton all you want, but if you spend your money with businesses that disallow personal expressions of this nature, you’re shooting blanks. HBCUs have a responsibility to educate their students about choice and about consequences. Hampton’s MBA program is highly selective. If you choose to attend, a consequence of that privilege is that you are expected to follow their rules. This is life, not dress rehearsal for it. Thanks for reading and commenting. Together, we’re making memories matter!
      – HBCUstorian

  2. I have read that Hampton places 99% of its graduates with jobs, mostly corporate positions after graduation. Apparently something is working. And as I read elsewhere, the Dean is not concerned about what you do with your after getting the job, they just want to make sure you land your first gig. I think the policy is more about having long hair. I have never seen pics of men on corporate boards with hair past their shoulders. And another thing– I have been trying to find evidence of when black men— specifically in the United States– began wearing dreds. I have searched old Soul Train clips from the 1970, relatives old yearbooks from the 1960s. The earliest I can find is evidence from the late 1980s. So when did dreds become so interwoven with black men, again, specifically in the United States. Was there some sort of spiritual rebirth that happen in the 80’s-early 90’s?

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