Talk Back

Does Hair Make the Man?

Recently, Dr. Steve Perry, an educator known for running Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut, tweeted about his experience at Steve Harvey’s mentoring camp for “fatherless boys.” While Perry shared his experience of watching young men apparently turn their lives around on the spot, one tweet about hair caught a lot of people’s attention.

Perry’s comment on connecting “aesthetics to success” rubbed many the wrong way, particularly because it seemed he was saying inherently Black hairstyles like braids and dreadlocks are a stumbling block to success.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Black hair has been cast as less than beautiful or fit for professional settings. While the natural hair movement has encouraged many Black folks to begin loving the hair that grows out of their head, there are still people (and companies and schools) that believe braids, cornrows, afros, and locs are not as polished or professional or attractive as straight (read: white) styles.

Back in March a waitress was fired for not straightening her natural hair; TV meteorologist Rhonda Lee was harassed after sporting a short afro on the news; last year, several children were threatened with suspension or expulsion for rocking their natural hair; and a few years ago, Hampton University’s Business School came under fire when it banned cornrows and dreadlocks. While some will argue “it’s just hair,” the view that Black hair in its natural state is not good enough only furthers the notion that if Black people want to succeed we need to become less outwardly Black.

Over on Twitter, Perry has called those who are critical of his haircut tweet “trolls,” insisting they are more concerned with protecting a particular hairstyle than protecting a child, but even that assertion is problematic.

As the mother of a 10-year-old Black son who’s tall for his age and has an afro, I realize that no matter what kind of hairstyle my son wears, the outside world is going to make snap judgments about him because of his skin color. After all, Jordan Davis had a fresh haircut and was still gunned down by a man who thought his music was too loud, and Trayvon Martin was confronted by a wannabe Neighborhood Watch member because he was Black, not because of his hair.

While there is nothing wrong with teaching our boys to take pride in their appearance and encouraging them to keep their clothes and hair neat at all times, giving them the message that inherently Black styles like dreads, braids, and afros do not fit into the definition of “neat” and “professional” and “successful,” while uplifting culturally-neutral styles, is not helping them to become productive young men. Instead, it reinforces the notion that, once again, Black people must conform to white standards of beauty if they want to be seen as attractive or taken seriously.

And that’s a shame.