In 2001, Hampton University’s business school banned male students enrolled in a leadership course from wearing dreadlocks and cornrows. Sid Credle, the dean of the historically black university’s business school, stated, “All we’re trying to do is make sure our students get into the job.” Eleven years after the regulation was instated, the topic has re-ignited, attracting national attention.
It is well known that dreadlocks, cornrows, afros and many other more natural hairstyles are viewed unfavorably within corporate America. However, the banning of such style preferences at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as well as the dean’s continued defense of this decision is both offensive and problematic. The goal of a historically black institution should go far beyond students landing a job. An institution founded on the advancement and education of black youth should be dedicated to fostering an environment that embraces cultural expression and pushes students to challenge social norms. Furthermore, a course promoting black male leadership should not demand such conformity.
There are many business schools in the United States where young, black, future professionals can matriculate. Many, like Hampton, boast a plethora of post-graduate job opportunities. However, many black youth attend HBCUs for an experience that will go beyond education and job placement. Many students are looking for an opportunity to embrace their ethnic background while formulating new and innovative ideas that will advance and empower the black community. Job placement is important, but HBCUs should not devalue the importance of the freedom of expression among black students just to make them more favorable to corporate America.
Former Hampton University student Mychal Smith made an accurate but unfortunate statement about current HBCU administrations.
“The administrations at HBCUs often view college not as a place for discovery, experimentation or the fostering of new ideas but as a stepping-stone to a good job with benefits. Their role isn’t to rage against the machine but to train the next generation of the talented tenth on how to become integral parts of the machine.”
Smith makes an excellent point here, and one that should resonate not only with HBCU administrators, but with the entire black community. If you narrowly define success as getting a good job, this perpetuates systematic, racially charged barriers. If no one is actively resisting the demand for conformity in corporate America, that doesn’t mean it will cease to exist. It will, in fact, become so ingrained in our ideas of what is acceptable and normal that few people will question it. If members of the black community and historically black institutions so eagerly succumb to conformity, how can we expect other racial groups not to expect it of us? Likewise, if HBCUs are not encouraging and empowering their students to challenge racially charged societal norms, even those seemingly as small as natural hairstyles, then what does that suggest to black youth?
Credle went on to state, “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.” Although he is correct in stating that these giants in African-American history did not wear dreadlocks, he erred in the idea that the racial barriers of their time coincide with those of today.
It doesn’t matter whether dreadlocks and cornrows were part of African-American history — these styles are a part of the present African-American culture, and that does not make their importance any less valid.
Moving forward, the black community must look beyond the triumphs of the past and look toward the battles of the present. Blacks are not fighting for civil rights, but that does not make the fight less important, or the stakes less high.
HBCUs play a critical part in setting the tone for the black youth. But the conservative, non-resistant stance that black institutions continue to take on social issues within the black community could perpetuate injustices rather than terminating them. That is why it is important that regardless of the administration’s goal, black college students at these black institutions and all institutions of higher education must remember that it is our generation’s responsibility to challenge these barriers and social institutions. Issues as seemingly small as a hairstyle speak volumes to the normative ideals that govern the capabilities of the black community.
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