I teach English in an urban school that serves 100% African American students. One of my favorite parts of my job is seeing my kids be their creative selves and explore everything from hairstyles to dance crazes. Almost every week they come in with a new phrase that I have to learn in order to keep up with them, and I consult them on whether I should buy the Jordan’s I think are cute.
But the latest fad that is sweeping the students is the low fade. Now, honestly, I love a man with a nice lining and a clean cut, but my students are not men. They are children, whether they, or the world, think they are.
Now, a haircut shouldn’t seem like a problem, right?
Out of sheer curiosity I asked one of my kids why he cut his usually tall, sponge-curled hair. He said “Ms. Logan I’m growing up, and I want people to take me seriously.” Part of me did back flips because — maturity. The other part of me fumed uncontrollably because why does he not think that he can be taken seriously with a high top? I could not help but begin to wonder if this was just his true feeling or if respectability politics were at play.
Who are these people he wants to take him seriously? What kind of criticism has he gotten because of his previous hair styles that makes him feel like looking more “presentable” would be the cure?
I’m the type of teacher that wears shirts that say shit like “Black Excellence” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” on a random Tuesday for more than one reason. The first is a little petty — I live off of white rage and my coworkers have a nice amount to keep me pushing forward. But the second is because of my aha moment a few months ago. After 45 was elected my kids had so many questions and one of my girls said to me “This [classroom] is the only place we can ask these questions and get real answers. We know you are here for us.” After I recovered from being overtaken by emotion I realized — again — that my kids needed to see me, in all of my black girl magic, love myself and them as hard as possible. This meant that no matter how low their pants sagged or how high and fanned out those ponytails were I would celebrate their individuality like I wish my high school teachers would have.
But if I’m celebrating it, can I disagree with it? I feel like a hypocrite when I see my kids Friday with a head full of hair and Monday with less than nothing where it used to be. My hair is big and natural, but when I was their age it was as processed as my beautician would allow it to be, and I combed so frequently it was bone straight and lifeless. It took me over 20 years to love my hair how it is, so can I get mad at my kids when they go through the same process?
I get it; one’s hairstyle does not define their level of blackness, but it doesn’t take away from it either. And for me, the cut is not the problem, it’s the reason behind it. It leads me to struggle with the fact that I, my coworkers and other educators are failing black boys still.
It may seem like a big leap — the choice to get a haircut means I’m not doing my job — but the way I see it, if my students think that they won’t be taken seriously because of the way they look it really doesn’t matter how much Toni Morrison or Malcolm X we read. My job is not only to educate, but to prepare my students for the world outside of our school. A large part of that is loving themselves, and being honest about what they will face.
So in a way, my kid was right to arm himself the way he knew how. But, it still bothers me that he, no matter how I shape it, won’t be taken seriously, haircut or not. Christopher Emdin put it this way, “…part of our collective failure to meet the needs of black males is a fear of acknowledging that they are always being compared to a white middle-class norm from which they often differ.” No matter how low his hair is, no matter how tight his belt is at his waist, my student will still be looked at as second best.
This is a problem bigger than me, or my student, especially when girls are coming home missing beads and braids because their teacher was irritated. The problem lies in how blackness is perceived, and more often than not, it is not the cherry on top of the 2 scoop chocolate sundae. At the end of the day, it does not matter how straight my hair is, or how sharp my kid’s lining is, or how clearly I enunciate my words or how well my students can recite Shakespeare because my name is still LaQuasha and his skin is still darker than the manager at the McDonald’s he filled out an application for.
It would be a different story if respectability politics actually earned us some type of respect, but it usually ends with another rejection or being followed around the bookstore at a well-known California university by a security guard like one of my other students was just last week. What does it really earn me? What does it really teach my students?
Damon Young said in his piece The Definition, Danger and Disease of Respectability Politics, Explained, “I love being black too much to be less me to gain some safety. If changing my name or my hair or the way I dress is what allows me to be more fully ‘American’ — more fully a person in the eyes of people who doubt my citizenship and my humanity — then that is not something I aspire to be.” I’ve won that internal battle, but the war still surges on in the way my kids think about themselves, and how the world either seconds or second guesses it.
*Also published on Blavity.com