Just because society equates anti-Blackness to access and upward mobility doesn't make it right. It's the system, not the people that must change.

The Keys To “Success” Should Not Be Rooted In Anti-Blackness: On Internalized Racism And Despising Black Hair As Access To Employment

Just because society equates anti-Blackness to access and upward mobility doesn't make it right. It's the system, not the people that must change.

When Toni Morrison said that racism keeps you from doing your work she was absolutely correct.

“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

– Toni Morrison

I was doing my work the other day when I came across this tweet from Steve Perry:

I was livid at this tweet and responded with one of my own:

Although some “professionals” out here who work with Black children think they have their best interests in mind, their actions can damage children’s self-esteem, especially if they have not addressed their own internalized racism and how it influences their work.

I’m calling for a stop to all these “experts” out here who peddle the idea to Black kids that success means becoming less of who you are.

“Experts” who tell Black children that their hair is unacceptable. You need to stop. And priding yourself on how many “lives you’ve touched” is nothing to celebrate if it means cultivating your unaddressed internalized racism in the minds of another generation of Black kids. That’s not needed for the culture.

Daily, in ways subtle and explicit, Black kids are told they are unacceptable because of who they are, including because of how their hair grows from their heads. To reinforce that notion under the guise of any kind of tips for, or requirements to become successful is emotional violence.

I’m not the only one who has responded to Perry’s tweet. In his piece: How Dr. Steve Perry Sells Black Kids To The Highest Bidder, educator Jose Vilson writes:

“Our trouble is that too many people are fooled by a tie, and a penchant for inflammatory statements…This ethos is the reason why his horrific tweet exists. If vulnerable communities allow swindlers to peddle their petulance across our hoods, we’ll continue to see his rendition of respectability politics police the ways and means that black culture exists. There’s plenty of money to be made in telling everyone black kids, specifically boys, need to be controlled and managed.

A tape-up and a nice tie won’t keep the bullets away from our black bodies. Pulling our pants up and aligning our values to the military sounds ridiculous on its face as well. Changing our aliases to more Euro-centric names might lead to more jobs, but won’t help us keep our jobs longer than our white counterparts, much less give us that elusive promotion. Staying up past our bedtimes won’t make us more resilient; if anything, lack of sleep would add more stressors to a community already suffering from a myriad of diseases and preventable conditions. Speaking in the King’s English won’t pause the school-to-prison pipeline and the lack of wraparound supports our schools need to survive the trauma associated with their lives.”

Steve Perry, who was once told to cut his hair before appearing on television because he “didn’t fit the look”, read as unacceptable and offensive to white viewers, should know better than to place blame on the hairstyles of Black Boys for their lack of “success” rather than focusing on the racist system they inhabit.

In his piece, Black Aesthetic, White Supremacy: Steve Perry’s Tweet Needs Cutting More Than Black Boys Hair, Dr. Andre Perry writes:

“The notion that traditionally black hairstyles are synonymous with being unsuccessful speaks directly to the pathologizing of blackness that this country is known to do—and our “leaders” are too often the ones elevated to do it.

Let’s be clear: Belt wearing isn’t the reason white children are educated in wealthier schools. Haircuts and etiquette classes don’t lead to the technological innovations of Silicon Valley. Lower incarceration rates aren’t because whites use drugs less often. The wage gap isn’t caused by white men’s hard work ethic.”

Check out The Root’s short video on the topic: (Can’t see the video?)

Steve Perry is not the only one who has equated Locs and Afros with undesirability in society. This idea goes far beyond him. It manifests itself interpersonally and institutionally.

After watching the video for the first time I entered into a debate (not a dialogue) with a relative (referred to as R) who said:

R: “I would like to see the correlation between the income of Black Men wearing hair the way they feel, and the income of Black Men utilizing the “Corporate Look”.

I just can’t take anyone serious that wears a hair ball on the top of his head. That’s just freaky. In business, whether in the corporate office, or in a small time operation, nappy hair, part dreads, full dreads, and unmanicured dreadlocks are all distasteful when dealing with regular people on the street. If I had worn one of these type of alternative hair styles, the business that I started wouldn’t have been so successful.”

Me: And I’m sitting here listening to this with my locs like ?

R: “Throughout American society, the “Clean Cut” look is more acceptable in almost every human circle, whether it is a corporate, religious, sport, and entertainment environment. Full dreadlocks are tolerated and accepted in some environments. However, the pig tails, mohawks, nappy afros, and hair balls may very well be hairstyles that least desirable, when businesses consider applicants during the interview process.”

Me: Correction: *Throughout racist American society… It is more acceptable because it is inherently anti-Black.

R: “It is, however, I won’t let my hairdo hinder my opportunity to earn a living. Whether I am self employed, or working as an employee.”

Some of us cut our hair because it’s a personal preference, others do so out of survival because they feel that in order to earn a living in this racist society, they need to appear as non-threatening to white people as possible and minimizing any semblance of difference between themselves and white people can be helpful towards reaching that goal.

It hurts, but sometimes we internalize the racist messages we receive about ourselves on a daily basis and truly come to believe that there is something wrong with the way our hair grows out of our heads, just as some have truly come to believe that dark skin is ugly and undesirable.

Racism is Prejudice plus Power

There are others who recognize that despite all that, what is “true”, what is “acceptable”, what is “beautiful”, and what is “professional” is more of a matter of power than a matter of fact. Plainly put, hairstyles have no bearing on professionalism.

“Clean cut” people (whatever that means) can be unprofessional, unethical, and incompetent. Let’s think for a moment about who really gets to decide what “clean cut” means in the first place.

Black folks who wear their hair in a way that also coincides with an appearance that is less threatening and more acceptable to whiteness, but do so out of personal preference is one thing, but when your distaste for natural hairstyles is rooted in internalized the racism, that’s a problem.

Despite whatever good works are out there, folks are doing psychological damage to the children they are “helping” by giving them this advice. And you know what else, even if you think having a haircut and a suit is better for you, that will not guarantee respectability and safety in a system that is inherently anti-Black.

Say that there is a pattern of higher income among Black men who wear the “clean cut” look in relation to those who “don’t”. All that would do is confirm the fact that those who look more acceptable (read as less threatening) to white people have higher incomes.

It only confirms the fact that there are rewards for complying with racism and conforming to standards that are defined by a system of white supremacy.

“This is how we want you to present yourself. If you do so, we’ll let you have a little access. Let’s not talk about how you will obtain only the appearance of acceptance and value, but we’ll grant you some access nonetheless. If you don’t appear the way we want you to appear, then we’ll make it harder for you.”

That’s oppressive assimilation dynamics 101, but just because there may be a higher pattern of income there, doesn’t make it right, it only confirms the presence of racism.

Ask professor Henry Louis Gates Jr with his low haircut and successful career how he felt about when the police were called on him because a neighbor thought he was breaking into his own home. The list is long of people who fit a certain standard of “professionalism” or even “success” but ultimately are not protected regardless of their status because they can’t pass the final test.

Assimilation as a Necessary Form of Survival

I know that every day, people who are Black have to make certain choices to survive, but what I can’t understand is when people pretend that a decision made under duress (read in this case as the threat of economic loss for failure to comply to inherently racist standards) is a choice that would have been made under normal circumstances, or is a choice that should be made under normal (read as equitable) circumstances.

That my readers have sent me messages about their fears that wearing locs will have a negative impact on their lives and livelihoods in the workplace, that Black loc wearing valedictorians are denied their right to attend and speak at graduation because of facial hair, that Black girls face suspension for wearing their hair natural in school, that Black women are fired for wearing their natural hairstyles and many other stories have nothing to do with their personal work ethic, character, competence or skill-set.

It does however, have everything to do with existing in a white supremacist system that is established and maintained on anti-Blackness.

Too often those on the receiving end of oppression are told that their own actions, or their very existence is to blame for their circumstances.

“I’m tired of the cure to these ills being sold as the package of “respectability”, which in this case translates into men of color presenting themselves in ways that can be interpreted as conforming/being non-threatening to the system of white supremacy .

“If only they’d pull their pants up.”

“If only they’d get an education.

“If only they’d take responsibility”

If only Jordan Davis would’ve turned his music down

If only Trayvon Martin didn’t look suspicious

If only this man would have stayed at home

If only this young man would have accepted the fact that he couldn’t possibly afford to shop at this store

If only Dr. King was wearing a suit on that fateful day in 1968.

If only President Obama went to a prestigious school and earned advanced degrees, maybe then there wouldn’t have been such an uproar and demand for him to produce his papers and prove that he was born in the United States.

Oh wait…..

Ultimately, “respectability” will not save us.

—From my note: Man I Need You To Name It: Why The Delivery Of The my Brother’s Keeper Initiative Put A Bad Taste In My Mouth

Just like it is emotionally and psychologically damaging to teach kids that light skin is better than dark skin, it is also damaging to teach them to despise, be disgusted with, or be ashamed of themselves in terms of their hair, whether they choose to keep it cut low, grow it out, straighten it, etc.

Again, I’m not talking about personal preference here, I am saying that we have to continue to be mindful of what we think about ourselves, to what degree we have internalized the racist messages about us, and to seek support to ensure that we interrupt them, and do not pass down and perpetuate those racist messages to our kids and each other.

“To grow up in a society that devalues black life and contributions as much as the current system, and not be impacted by it in any way would be nothing short of a miracle.”

—From my note: A Collection of Narratives for Processing and Reflecting on Police Brutality, #Ferguson and Beyond: #BlackLivesMatter

Although we’ve been taught to believe it, and are repeatedly told on a daily basis, this isn’t our fault.

The keys to “success” should not be rooted in anti-Blackness.


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW

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Written by

I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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5 Responses

  1. lady2soothe says:

    All your articles are powerful but this one in particular hits home. My youngest son now 33, braids, tattoos, low slung pants, light skinned but muscular was never one to sit behind a desk, has been the target of everything *unacceptable * about young Black men.

    Braids are gone; pants hiked up to an acceptable level [sic], but only because he’s a firefighter, making his dangerous job a bit less dangerous. However, a heavily tattooed muscular Black man, regardless of his lighter pigmentation, perfect teeth, and warm smile without a fireman’s hat is still viewed as a potential risk and less than.

    Reposting on Facebook and Re-blogging.

    • Thank you for reading and sharing your comment! Your words definitely reinforce the point that I have tried to surface in my writing this post. Even those who do appear in a way that is said to be more *acceptable* or less threatening to a white supremacist power structure still experience racial discrimination.

      It’s not the way we look that needs to change. Rather, the way society thinks about Blackness needs to change. We are not inferior. People who are white are not superior.

  1. July 3, 2016

    […] “Experts” who tell Black children that their hair is unacceptable. You need to stop. And priding yourself on how many “lives you’ve touched” is nothing to celebrate if Continue Reading https://notesfromanaspiringhumanitarian.com/the-keys-to-success-should-not-be-rooted-in-anti-blackne… […]

  2. July 3, 2016

    […] “Experts” who tell Black children that their hair is unacceptable. You need to stop. And priding yourself on how many “lives you’ve touched” is nothing to celebrate if Continue Reading https://notesfromanaspiringhumanitarian.com/the-keys-to-success-should-not-be-rooted-in-anti-blackn… […]

  3. August 1, 2016

    […] The Keys To Success Should Not Be Rooted In Anti-Blackness: On Internalized Racism And Despising Bla…. […]

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