I’m married to a man who’s absolutely obsessed with sports. We rarely watch TV together because he is content to watch ESPN around the clock. Sunday morning was one of those rare times we were watching TV together. He was tuned into some show recapping the Bengals vs Steelers playoff game. I was barely watching or listening when I heard, “Assistant Coach Mike Munchak pulled Reggie Nelson’s hair!”
I snatched the remote to rewind because I was sure I hadn’t heard what I thought I heard. I watched this white man — an assistant coach — grab the locs of a black player. I had to replay the clip four times. That scene was a virtual commercial for white supremacy. The symbolism, dehumanization and racist arrogance of the incident made me realize that black men are often overlooked in conversations about discrimination against black hair.
Though the stigma attached to natural black hair and hairstyles is still a very real problem for black women, our widespread unabashed embrace of our hair has forced some acceptance. That’s not to say that we aren’t still being targeted for choosing to wear our hair in its natural state, but that we are on our “deal with it” steez and that is making people realize their disdain for our twistouts, crochets, afros and braids is a problem of their colonized minds not ours. That revolution in our thinking and attitudes toward our natural hair has quite naturally (pun intended) excluded black men. We’ve forgotten that their locs, cornrows and high fades are ridiculed and stereotyped as much as ours.
I remember receiving an employee handbook that discussed appearance. It noted that men were not to have their hair “longer than four inches” and that it must be “neatly groomed.” One of my coworkers, a black man, and I were talking once and he mentioned he wanted to grow out his hair. I asked why he didn’t and he gave me the standard black people “stop playing” look, going on to say, “You already know these white folks ain’t having it.” I was in Human Resources at the time and pointed out the vague limitations on men’s hair outlined in the employee handbook. He replied, “You know what they mean though.” I dropped it because I could see he wasn’t ready to or interested in risking the fight both he and I knew would result from four inches of hair on the head of a black man employed in the IT department of a law firm.
If he were so inclined though, that would’ve been a battle I would have loved to fight with him. It’s not uncommon for non-black men in corporate America to have four inches of hair on their head. Their hair is perfectly fine for meetings, presentations and representing the company. Black hair typically grows out and up though. So four inches of hair growing from a black man’s hair won’t just hang naturally. That means those four inches have to be groomed into an Afro, fashioned into locs or individual braids, or cornrowed.
I adore longer hair on black men be it three-inch fades, flowing locs or cornrows. It’s not so much the aesthetic qualities of these styles that I like, but the middle finger to assimilation they represent. It’s black men refusing to fit into the “non-threatening” image of black man society has created.
And predictably, just as with the backlash against black women, their is backlash against black men who don’t keep low Caesers. I’ve read too many admonishments to black men about how “dreadlocks are not professional.” Somehow, neatly maintained locs lying on his back prevents a black man from performing his job well. I’ve seen too many people associate cornrows with criminality, as if the cross stitch pattern somehow turns black men and boys from model citizens to criminals.
Earlier this year, there was a video of a black man in Baltimore during the riots being taken down by his hair and pepper sprayed. The same feeling of unbridled rage welled up in me seeing a professional football coach grab a black man’s hair. Whenever I’ve witnessed a man pull the hair of a woman, it was a pathetic attempt to prove his manhood. I imagine it’s the same with yanking a black man’s hair. It’s an attempt to emasculate him, reminding him that no matter his refusal to fit into the narrow confines of respectability, he’ll always be powerless over his own body. It attacks an instrument of revolution: black non-conforming hair.
I remember the first time I took out braids over the weekend and didn’t have time to get them redone. Sunday night, I stood in my bathroom mirror off and on for hours trying to convince myself to wear an afro puff into the office. Eventually, I decided to call out the next day and go get my hair braided. I’ve since overcome my anxiety about displaying my natural hair in the office, thanks largely in part to other black women who’ve shown me that our hair is not a problem.
I wonder if there are black men going through the same. I wonder if they wrestle with the decision to rage against respectability and grow out their hair to achieve the dopest locs or nicest cornrows. They need a revolution too, even if just one of the mind. They need to start loving their hair the way black women have learned to love ours.