I want to address a trending news story concerning a policy banning men from wearing their hair in cornrows and locs in a leadership program in the 5yr MBA at Hampton University, an HBCU in Virginia. Although recent attention has been brought to it, the policy has been around since 2001. It doesn’t affect all students, just men in this particular group being groomed for the world of executive business elites. (I shudder to imagine the gender-specific rules for women.)
Some have looked at this and praised Hampton for taking a realistic and practical approach to preparing Black men for the harsh reality of racism and prejudice that they will already have to overcome. This view says that we need not give people reasons to assign negative stereotypes to us before we ever have the chance to open our mouths.
Others have praised the policy because it teaches proper business etiquette. One must look the part to play the part, according to this view. This perspective also tacitly accepts the dominance of one definition of professionalism that has been culturally informed by one group – middle and upper class White men.
On the other side, some (many in my networks) folks are decrying Hampton’s policy for caving in to cultural imperialism and racial assimilation. By restricting how Black men can wear their hair, these detractors insist that Hampton is teaching Black men to reject their cultural heritage in favor of someone else’s. Such assimilationist policies reinforce the social conservatism that scholars Shaun Harper and Marybeth Gasman found in their report on the character of HBCUs.
I can see justification for each of these perspectives. However, they cannot co-exist in the current framework that positions current Black men MBA students as future White corporation’s employees. The only way to redress racism, look the part you want to play, and retain one’s self-defined cultural authenticity is to reposition current Black men – and women – MBA students as future owners/entreprenuers.
Let me step back. In order to understand how Hampton even instituted such a policy, we must revisit Black higher education after the Civil War and the two philosophies about the purpose of Black education that competed for prominence at that time. I love the way James Anderson discusses this topic in his book on Black education in the South; his framing of this tension has heavily influenced what I’m about to say here.
Industrial education proponents, including Booker T. Washington, advocated for an education that would equip newly freed Blacks for the jobs that were open to them at that time in the US due to acknowledged racial discrimination. These jobs required skilled labor to work in the burgeoning mechanical industries for men and as office workers and domestics primarily for women. This was often the only kind of education that White philanthropists would support. The institutions that arose from this philosophy included Tuskegee and Hampton among others who told their funders that they supported that educational mission but actually followed a different course. We see this play out at what are now Spelman and Bethune-Cookman colleges.
That different course, led by proponents like W.E.B. DuBois, demanded that Blacks have the opportunity to receive a “classic liberal education,” the same as White students would receive in college. Their vision was to train up a “talented tenth” (DuBois) that could fulfill leadership roles to promote community uplift. Colleges that strove to provide this kind of education included Fisk and Morehouse.
Either we are going to educate for accommodation with the status quo or we are going to educate for leadership. I find it ironic that a “leadership” program is implicitly using what I see as an industrial education paradigm. Why not educate its MBA students in the strategies and tools of entreprenuers, instead of grooming them to be worker drones (I’m suddenly reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s movie “A Bee’s Life”)? A critical pedagogy does not train for discipline, but rather primes the pump for innovation.
I surmise that an institution cannot both aspire to a liberal education that develops leaders who can challenge the status quo AND tow the line on a social conservatism that reinforces White racial dominance. Hampton needs to make a choice and students need to decide whether that is an educational vision they want to fulfill.
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