by Kevin Cokley Ph.D.
Fighting notions of respectability and race-based hair discrimination.
- The negative attitude toward certain styles of Black hair reflects a politics of respectability.
- The devaluation and denigration of Black hair is psychologically damaging.
- Black hair is an important source of cultural pride and counter to Whiteness as the standard.
Twenty-five years ago when I was a young assistant professor, I decided to start growing locs. The process of growing locs (often referred to as “dreadlocks”) is basically when hair binds together and remains that way, where it becomes “locked” from the tip of the hair to the root. As I was going through the process I started my hair in twists, which is a method of twisting the hair that is not as long-lasting and permanent as locs. I have described this period of the process as my hair looking rough, as each twist seemed to have a mind of its own and point in different directions instead of having the well-manicured look that I hoped to eventually achieve.
I remember going to visit my parents with this new look, and my mother expressed concern about whether, as a professor, my new employer would “let” me have my hair in that style. She clearly did not approve. I assured her that I could wear my hair in whatever way I chose, but to assuage her concerns I told her that the look was not permanent and that it was essentially a phase. I knew that it wasn’t a phase but I did not want my mother to be concerned about what she apparently perceived as my lack of “professionalism.” A few years later a church mother (i.e., a female spiritual and moral authority in the Black church) in my home church cheekily remarked “I know why they call them dreadlocks, because they are dreadful to look at.”
Politics of Respectability
The negative attitude toward this particular style of Black hair reflects a politics of respectability that some Black folks and other marginalized communities embrace as a strategy to assimilate, gain the respect of the majority culture, and achieve social mobility. This respectability politics has also manifested in other areas of Black culture. For example, a few years ago the Dean of the Hampton University Business School banned dreadlocks (and cornrows) in the classroom on the basis that they have not historically been considered a professional look. The idea that a hairstyle which is such a prominent part of the cultural identity of Black people is “not professional” is perhaps the quintessential example of respectability politics.
As a discipline, psychology has not explicitly addressed the psychological impact of respectability politics. The closest attempt might be internalized racism, which is when marginalized and oppressed communities internalize racist stereotypes, images, aesthetics, and ideologies by the White dominant society about their racial group. The Africentric psychologist Kobi Kambon labeled it cultural misorientation, characterized by Black people internalizing a Eurocentric cultural orientation (e.g., preferring White features and aesthetics over Black features and aesthetics).
By whatever name it is called, the devaluation and denigration of Black hair by Black people is psychologically damaging. It is the result of years of socialization that places White aesthetics and the approximation of Whiteness as the cultural standard by which all racial and ethnic groups are compared. While skin color is understandably the physical characteristic often focused on around discussions of approximation to Whiteness, it is Black hair that is a particularly important source of cultural pride and counter to Whiteness as the standard. In their study of beauty and body image concerns among African American women, Awad and colleagues found that there needed to be a reconceptualization of body image for African American women because hair was given more priority over traditional body image concerns that are typically associated with White women.
Race-Based Hair Discrimination
Noted psychologist and Black mental health and hair expert Afiya Mbilishaka has researched hair discrimination within Black communities. In one study Mbilishaka and her colleagues found that Black women and men experienced hair discrimination at home within their family and in public settings (e.g., at school with teachers and classmates).
Most studies of Black hair focus on the experiences of African American women. This is understandable because of the connection of hair to beauty that intersects along race and gender and places an extra burden on Black women. In fact, in reviewing the psychological literature I only found one study, also by Mbilishaka and her colleagues, that focused on understanding the psychological meaningfulness of hair for Black men.
While the focus on the politics of Black hair for African American women is logical, it is also important to understand the psychology and politics of Black hair for African American men. I am reminded of this because of the Texas high school student, Darryl George, who was suspended for more than a month for wearing a natural hairstyle, braided locs, that fell below his eyebrows and earlobes, thus violating the school district’s dress code. George spent a month at an alternative school because he refused to cut his hair. Upon returning to regular classes, George was suspended again for failure to cut his locs. His family has argued that the CROWN act, which prohibits race-based hair discrimination, should protect their son; however, the school says that the CROWN act does not address hair length.
Addressing the legalities of the CROWN act and whether the school complied or not is not my focus. Lawyers will eventually settle this in court. My concern is the political tone-deafness of this school and the message they are sending to Black students (and for that matter adults). Race-based hair discrimination among Black people has to include hair length. For young Black males, a lot of Black men they happen to admire are athletes and rappers, and many of them have natural hair styles that are long. When my son made the decision to grow locs, it wasn’t because I have locs. Instead, it was because he wanted to have the same hairstyle as his favorite college football player, Bijon Robinson.
A dress code that focuses on hair length and disregards the adaptability of Black hair styles disproportionately negatively impacts Black students, especially Black males. How can Black people, especially Black youth, unequivocally embrace and have pride in their culture when they have to contend with hair discrimination from within and outside their culture?
In the final analysis, laws, while needed, are not the most important deterrent against race-based hair discrimination. Regardless of race, people need to be educated about the importance and cultural significance of Black hair.