Commentary: Hampton University, Hair, and Freedom of Expression

In 2001, Hampton University implemented a policy for its Black male business school students: no cornrows, dreadlocks or braids. In the past few weeks, controversy over the policy has resurfaced.

From the institution’s perspective, the ban is preparing the students for the corporate world. The dean of the business school believes that graduates with cornrows, dreadlocks or braids will not be able to gain employment due to standards of appearance and dress that are expected within the corporate setting. He is correct in many cases.

There have been several corporations that have been in hot water over their policies banning cornrows and locks as these policies specifically target African-Americans. In addition, there are unspoken and unwritten policies and practices that hold Blacks back from higher level positions when they do not conform to Eurocentric ways of grooming and dressing.

From the critics’ perspective, a ban on culturally “Black” styles of hair both limits freedom of expression and conforms to White ideals of beauty. They feel that hair is personal and that students should be able to wear it any way that they choose.

From my perspective, in order to fully understand the Hampton’s hair ban and the actions of the college’s administration, it is important to consider the history of the nation’s Black colleges. From their beginnings in the late 19th Century, HBCUs have often had to be conservative in order to protect their students from outside forces. This was especially the case during the Jim Crow era—a time in which the education of Blacks was a threat to mainstream America.

Presidents of Black colleges knew that their students were not looked upon as individuals like White students, but instead viewed as a group. The actions of one Black student reflected the actions of all Black students. Given the vile racism lurking about at the time, having a parental view of the college-student relationship was often necessary. Today, some HBCU administrators still want to protect students from American racism (which is alive and kicking) and in doing so they often curtail freedom of expression.

Rather than have a ban on hairstyles, a better approach would be to talk to students about traditional standards of professionalism and the ramifications of pushing back against those standards. There are those students who fight the status quo and succeed, and there are those students who will have to choose another place of employment other than a Fortune 500 company. Rather than asserting control over the students, Hampton University and all colleges and universities should work with them to make informed choices and to think critically about the systems in place that curtail their freedoms.

Self-expression and individual freedoms are values that most Americans cherish. Suppressing these freedoms helps no one. It conforms to the status quo but worse than that, it fails to teach students how to think critically and manage their own actions.

Hampton University—and HBCUs in general—should be out in front on this discussion, helping corporate America to understand cultural differences as they relate to Blacks and providing a venue in which students can debate issues of expression and notions of professionalism. If not at the nation’s HBCUs, where else can these conversations and subsequent learning experiences then take place?

A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).