It’s funny, I had just submitted my next piece for TM.com; a piece about the dangers of, what I call “hair imprisonment,” the condition of so many women who hold their hair as the sum total of their beauty and attractiveness. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about it and then I get tagged in a Facebook post:“Cut It Off! Hampton University Business School Bans Dreadlocks & Braids.” I was shocked and angered, not only because of the obvious assault on liberty but also because this was a battle that my best friend fought as a student and young man with locs at Hampton University.
In 1998, as a Student Government President, the Dean of Student Affairs at the time made it very clear to me that my appearance was a problem. Sure, there were others in the administration that shared his opinion and, I had to smile through insensitive jokes about my locs from people who were old enough to have marched for the right of blacks to be judged by the content of their character, but I relished in the opportunity to “rage against the machine.” I guess I’m just built that way, but at least they didn’t ban me from holding my position.
Compare that to my man Kevin whose case, I’m sure helped inspire this ridiculous ban. Kev, was one of the few brothers on campus with locs and the only person I had ever met with a laptop computer. At age 19, he’d created his own information systems company, Ebony Oasis Inc., which is still operating. He was smart, wise and exceptionally well spoken for someone so new to adulthood. He was also the very first person to be banned from participating in the business school’s Wednesday seminars because of his hair.
I remember the day. I remember waiting for Kev outside the office of the Dean of the School of Business, where he was attempting to reason with him. I remember Kev leaving the office hurt and angered because that Dean, a tall slender light-skinned man with waves in his hair, had told him that his locs were not an acceptable part of corporate culture and likened them to “wearing a brown suit.” Kev protested, bringing his grievance to the attention of friends he had in the administration that were sympathetic, but they were unable to affect the situation. Finally, Kev spoke to one professor, a white professor who happened to be a lawyer, and that professor told him that he had to fight this ruling. Dwell on that for a minute… The white professor told the black student that he had to fight the cultural discrimination he was facing at the hands of the black dean of the School of Business at a Historically Black College… Wow.
Kev had brought his case before the proper school authorities who agreed that there was no precedence for removing a student from class activities because of their choice of hairstyle, but by that time he was mentally spent. He’d already missed the presentation he was supposed to be leading before a major corporation and even thought this whole ordeal was the result of one man’s decision, his faith in the University had been damaged as well – especially when factoring in my experiences. After that, he transferred out of Hampton’s business school, and three years later (as locs and cornrows became more fashionable for men) the School of business codifies this, well-intentioned ignorance into law.
Let me state, for the record (before I go in) that I love my alma mater and will always cherish my days there and that this criticism does not apply to the entire university, but only to the School of Business. That said, it was Hampton University that helped to cultivate in me an activist spirit, so it’s only fitting that I apply it in my emphatic rebuke of this archaic ban. After all, the Good Book teaches that we rebuke that which we love. So what can I say about this?
First, to the students in the MBA program, I would just say that there will be times in your life and certainly in your job where you will be asked (expressly or implicitly) to compromise your beliefs, your values or who you are for the sake of advancement. I caution you, decide now how much you are willing to compromise to land a job, or keep a job or advance in a job. If you cut your locs (and I’m not criticizing anyone who does) because you suspect that the person interviewing you has a problem with your culture, would you then try to tuck in your lips or lighten your skin for the same reason? After all, if the person across from you is using your neatly, well-groomed locs to culturally discriminate against you, then it’s likely that he/she’s going to be working their way down a list that ends with physical characteristics you can’t change; your lips, your nose, your gluteus maximus. And when that happens, will you overcompensate by accepting the casual race joke or sexual harassment that accompanies corporate culture?
To the School of Business, I’d assert that there are five problems that I see with this policy.
1) Simple mindedness- Your students spend 5 years in an MBA program, and if by year 5 they aren’t able to make their own rational assessments about what comprises acceptable in corporate culture, then your MBA program isn’t worth more than a High School diploma… because you can’t teach common sense…
2) Near sightedness -The program discounts that corporate culture is more diverse now than ever before. Corporate doesn’t just refer to a job a Johnson & Johnson (a place where the Business school used to love bragging about placing students)…. Corporate culture today refers to Google Inc., Apple, Geffen Records, Twentieth Century Fox, BB&H advertising—ALL major corporate institutions where I’ve seen 1st hand that the 3-piece suit/Mad Men model, not only doesn’t apply, but can be a hindrance. The business school’s failure to embrace this reality shows that they are too dogmatically attached to 20th-century thinking, thus limiting their students at a time when they need to expand their idea of “corporate culture” in an rapidly changing world, where the CEOs are 22-year-old guys who start up billion-dollar companies like…. well, Facebook…
3) Failure of imagination – Instead of banning certain hairstyles, which harkens back to the days of brown paper bag and comb tests, how about using a little creativity. Why not either make sure that all students take a course in corporate culture that, among other things discusses grooming, manicuring, etc. It could also discuss the diversity of corporate cultural standards based upon region and industry. That’s just off the top of my head, btw.
4) Weakness – The mission of the school of business is “to produce professionals, leaders and scholars of strong character,” but failing to inspire students to believe in themselves, their abilities, their talent, their ingenuity, their charisma, their industry and their decision-making ability isn’t a quality of leadership. And discouraging students from embracing their cultural identity with confidence and failing to encourage self-expression in ways that are smart andappropriate certainly doesn’t help to create business men and women of “strong character.” Quite the contrary, it instills an acceptance weakness that encourages students to compromise their self respect to, as the school’s dean states “get the job”…. But in the end how many employers are really out there looking to hire someone who’s trained to cower and shrink?