Changing our hair has never been enough to protect Black people from anything in this country. The mere notion is unfounded and problematic. But that hasn’t kept some especially respectable Negros from suggesting otherwise.
Last week, educator and television personality, Dr. Steve Perry, came under fire for suggesting that young Black people, specifically young Black men, cutting their dreads, braids, and “unkept frosh” might garner them greater professional and social success. Social media erupted in response.
These comments were made in relation to a recent camp Perry participated in with TV host and comedian Steve Harvey and the US Army that hosted approximately 200 Black boys in an effort to “support” them.
According to the press release on the camp,
“A total of 220 fatherless male youths from across the country, aged 13-18, were invited to attend a mentoring camp experience at Camp Grace in Roberta, GA hosted by the Steve Harvey Mentoring Program for Young Men. During the program, the teens live among male role models and are exposed to educational and inspirational activities aimed to introduce them to adulthood and teambuilding, instill self-respect and respect for others, teach helpful life skills and introduce problem-solving techniques to conquer obstacles and empower their futures.”
The tweet that set most people on social media off suggested that cutting hair leads to achieving “success.”
— Dr. Steve Perry (@DrStevePerry) June 12, 2016
While the motives behind the camp seem reputable, the conflation of “aesthetics” with “success” is an especially sensitive topic. Over recent years, young Black people have been suspended and/or kicked out of schools, forcibly removed from jobs, denied access to their own graduation ceremonies, all because of “aesthetics” which are biased toward whiteness.
These actions against the public expression of blackness through hair-styling is not an indication that Black people should no longer have a right to govern their own bodies in the name of “success.” Rather, it is the embodiment of white supremacy working to control and whiten blackness, manipulating it to be less like the “other” in the eyes of many whites.
What is even more disturbing about these types of respectability narratives is that they suggest that if Black people would only dress “nicely,” change the way they present themselves in public, and assimilate, then White people would stop targeting them for harm, discrimination, and violence. But this, too, has no basis in reality. NBA star Thabo Sefolosha learned this the hard way when he was assaulted by NYPD, resulting in his leg being broken and major losses to his athletic career. Sefolosha was obeying police orders and looked “respectable” when officers brutally attacked him. They weren’t concerned with the price of his sneakers, his haircut, or his level of “success.” Instead, they saw him as a Black man who deserved their aggression. This experience is all too common.
The conversation around physical appearance and assimilation is also a systemic problem. Institutional racism in this country means that young people with “Black sounding” names are less likely to get jobs even when they have more qualifications than people with “White sounding” names. It means that they are subjected to greater instances of predatory lending than their White peers. It means they are more likely to be relegated to sub-par housing in environmentally unfriendly communities. It even means they are less likely to attend fully funded schools. How can a haircut help any of this?
Let’s be clear here: what Dr. Perry and Steve Harvey are attempting to do by mentoring young Black men is honorable. It is a beautiful thing to see Black men giving back to their own communities. However, if that outreach and advocacy comes with respectability politics that have been proven useless, ineffective, and completely fictitious in nature, then it isn’t helpful. This is especially true in a moment when public space has become even more dangerous for young people of color.
Haircuts won’t protect young people. Dressing nicely doesn’t guarantee success. Behaving won’t keep us alive. And, being respectable doesn’t mean White people will respect us. The only thing that will accomplish these feats is the dismantling of white supremacy. The sooner we all figure that out, the better off we will be.
Photo: Open source/Pixabay