College campuses are frequent centers of controversy, where tensions in American culture and politics blossom and burst forth within the hothouse environment of a concentrated population of young, passionate learners. Lately many campuses have erupted in debate, from the concealed-carry weapons rules in Colorado to the fight over the presence of Chick-Fil-A on the University of Maryland campus. This week, a long-standing policy at Hampton University, the storied Historically Black College or University (HBCU) in Virginia, has created headlines. Dreadlocks and cornrow braids have been banned for male undergraduates since 2001, despite disagreement and controversy.
As reported on InsideHigherEd and just about everywhere else this past week, Dean of Business Sid Credle argues that such hairstyles are not professional and will not help students gain corporate employment. He reportedly denied the importance of the hairstyles in the history of black culture and said,
“When was it that cornrows and dreadlocks were a part of African American history? I mean Charles Drew didn’t wear it, Muhammad Ali didn’t wear it. Martin Luther King didn’t wear it.”
The problem is that this ban may violate the first amendment rights of expression of all Americans, much the way other rules about appearance and clothing have. More importantly, it also raises questions about the role that race and culture plays both in college and in the post-college job search, as well as generational differences between faculty and students.
African American hair has long been a topic of contention in the United States, both within and without black culture. Malcolm X famously rejected the practice of hair straightening (“conking”) when he realized that he was rejecting a part of his identity in order to fit into white standards. The emergence of the Afro hairstyle in the 1960s was partially built on his philosophy, and during the Black Power movement, African Americans embraced the “natural” as a way to celebrate black culture and heritage and gain personal empowerment through a new appreciation and pride in their cultural identities.
Recently, Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary Good Hair delved into the cultural aspects of black hair in the United States, while the spectacular, boundary-breaking gymnast Gabby Douglas, one of the very few women of color to ever compete in Olympic gymnastics, won two gold medals-and all she got for it was an onslaught of criticism about her hair from both black and white commentators. In many ways, the ban at Hampton University represents a new chapter in this ongoing debate over how important a hairstyle is within the complex dynamics of race in the United States.
The Issue for Business Students
Given this extensive and complicated history, Hampton University’s ban on dreadlocks and cornrows is more complicated than just another aspect of professional training, like learning how to select the appropriate clothing for an interview. As an educator, I understand Dean Credle’s concern: he wants to make sure that all Hampton students have every opportunity to succeed in a culture that is still fundamentally struggling with racism and in which preconceived ideas based on appearance may unfortunately prevent African Americans and others from achieving everything they can. But it does make me wonder if the ban on ethnic hairstyles only reaffirms the dominance of one standard of appearance that may not be right for everyone and, in fact, may damage respect for the great diversity that enriches our society.
The Hampton controversy also reminds me of a powerful scene in the Academy Award-winning film Philadelphia. In that film, which is based on a true story, a lawyer played by Tom Hanks sues the firm that fired him for discrimination, arguing that he was illegally fired for having HIV/AIDS-but it soon becomes clear that he is not the only person in the courtroom who has suffered from discrimination. During testimony, a member of the staff at the law firm was questioned by attorney for the plaintiff Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). She explained some of the challenges she faced as a black professional in a corporate law office:
Joe Miller: Have you ever felt discriminated against at Wyatt Wheeler?
Anthea Burton: Well, yes.
Miller: In what way?
Burton: Well, Mr. Wheeler’s secretary, Lydia, said that Mr. Wheeler had a problem with my earrings.
Burton: Apparently Mr. Wheeler felt that they were too…”Ethnic” is the word she used. And she told me that he said that he would like it if I wore something a little less garish, a little smaller, and more “American.”
Miller: What’d you say?
Burton: I said my earrings are American. They’re African-American.
As this exchange illustrates, cultural identities can be difficult to maintain in a conservative business environment. Thus the dreadlock and cornrow ban at Hampton University is about much more than fashion: it is about race and identity; history and culture; power and money. Students and new graduates deal with many different questions about how to navigate the business world; black students may also have to face discrimination based on their identity and appearance – as may many members of minority groups or any student or graduate on the job search whose appearance deviates from the dominance of conservative and traditional business styles.
Different Era, Different Styles?
About.com’s Race Relations columnist Nadra Kareem Nittle altered the parameters of the discussion about Hampton’s hairstyle ban by pointing out something that is directly relevant to business students everywhere: business culture today is quite different from the era when professors and deans came of age. She expanded the debate over black hairstyles into a generational conflict that acknowledges the changed nature of contemporary business culture, which includes online, nonprofit, and other non-traditional business environments in which a variety of sartorial and coiffure choices may be acceptable. She argued,
“Hampton’s ban fails to acknowledge that business people today are much more eclectic than they were in the past. Not everyone who earns an MBA ends up working for a Fortune 500 company. What about the business students who’ll end up at establishments where clients appreciate individuality and an unconventional look is a selling point rather than a drawback? … In the 21st century, it’s very disheartening to discover that a black institution thinks that students will only succeed if they alter their hair to conform to mainstream standards.”
All of this means that students should be aware of their choices and what they may signify to others. Students who are about to leave college and enter the professional world have to consider how they wish to represent themselves, and what that means. It’s a question that only the individual can answer.