Hampton University

Hampton University (Photo credit: Kevin Coles)

When I read about the controversy surrounding Hampton University‘s ban on it’s young male business students wearing their hair in braids or dreadlocks my initial response was conflicted. Since 2001, male students enrolled in their 5 year MBA Leadership course have not been allowed to sport the sometimes controversial hairstyles because as the Dean of Business School, Sid Credle surmized, “The hairstyles may prevent students from securing corporate jobs.” The Huffington Post reported that many students didn’t feel how they wore their hair should have any bearing on whether or not their educational and professional pursuits and while it shouldn’t(this is where I’m conflicted)…it does.

Having worked in Corporate America for 15 years and having been an African American for 40, my mother always told me–“You have to look twice as nice just to get in the door” and that saying still holds true. Corporate America has  a uniform that they require all employees to wear regardless of race and while I always understood my mothers saying to involve my race as an African American, I later found that Corporate America has a set of standards for regarding how any employee dresses or wears their hair no matter their ethnicity.

I had a co-worker who used to wear his hair shaved. He was mixed race Filipino/Chinese and was climbing the corporate ladder fast but before he was given his big break, he was approached by one of the Vice Presidents of the company who “advised” him that if he wanted to “succeed in management”, he was going to have to grow his hair out. What an interesting dichotomy…for an African American male, having long hair was “unacceptable” to Corporate America and for an Asian male, the opposite was true. So how is one supposed to keep up on the rules and who is recording the changes? Well, if you look at the rate of unemployment and how difficult it is for everyone to find a job, looking the part is more important now than ever before.

One of the students interviewed by ABC, Uriah Bethea, was quoted as saying–“I don’t think it should matter what the hairstyle. It’s my life. I should be able to do whatever I want to do.” First, since when does anyone ever get to just “Do whatever they want to do” and second, the only way that statement holds true is if you become an entrepreneur. Even then, your field still dictates your look. Whether you work for the Fire Department or your neighborhood Supermarket, each has a dress code where they dictate how long your hair and facial hair can be and the dress codes are all-inclusive.

Whatever your profession, you are expected to play the part so having a University prepare you for the inevitable shouldn’t be shocking, rather, it should be appreciated that someone is willing to give you the tools to succeed. Think of it like this–Would you rather be told to cut your hair or be told you can’t have the job because you didn’t?

I understand that wearing dreads or braids is a cultural identifier and that is why I have mixed feelings about whether or not one should be allowed to keep them but in our society, everyone has a role to play. There’s no rule that says you have to conform and I’m not mad if you choose the road less traveled but I’m going to need you to be honest about your options and be prepared to fight to prove you aren’t how they perceive you.