A Hierarchy of Acceptable Black Male Hair?

Apparently, African American women are not the only ones who find themselves in awkward conversations based on their choice to wear locs.  Last night, while I was driving home from my mom’s house, I noticed a couple in the car next to me trying to get my attention while I was stopped at a red light.  It was an African American man and a Caucasian woman.  I thought they were trying to ask for directions or something since it is a generally safe part of town so I rolled my window down.  What I got was something entirely unexpected.

“Omarion cut his off, you should cut yours off too,” the man yelled at me.  I figured I hear him wrong.

“What did you say?” I replied.

“I said, Omarion cut his off, you should cut yours off too.”  It’s important to note that he had a traditional fade or something like that.  Nonetheless, I figured he was confused.  First, it’s 2012.  Who actually talks about Omarion anymore?  Second, Omarion had cornrows.  I have locs, big difference.  I figured I would be nice and clarify.

“He had cornrows, these are locs,”I replied.

“It doesn’t matter,” he continued, “You should cut them off.”  Clearly, this man I had never seen before was confused if he thought that his opinion mattered to me.  The reality is that I doubt I will ever see him again in my entire life.

“But I like them,” I replied still slightly amused by this late night conversation.

“Well, I don’t,” he replied as if I couldn’t figure that out from the overall feel of the conversation.  There is an unspoken hierarchy of acceptable black male hair.  At the top of the hierarchy is the closely shaven “Caesar.”  Next, is the slightly longer fade and the shaved head.  Anything longer is deemed less favorable.  (Don’t even get me started on the faux hawk or the Wiz Khalifa-inspired hair dye jobs).  When a black man’s hair is long enough for cornrows, it is typically considered to be too long.  Cornrows are generally looked upon less favorably than locs partly because until recent years, locs were relatively uncommon.  However, neither style is considered ideal for respectable African American men in spite of the many successful physicians, attorneys, academics, clergy, and media personalities who embrace them.  Remember, it wasn’t too long ago when Hampton University banned its male business schools students from wearing locs or cornrows in class.  I guess societal change takes time.

“Not my problem,” I answered quickly before rolling my window back up and listening to the laid back love songs on my radio.  I’m pretty sure he kept talking, but I didn’t listen.  Then, the light changed and he proceeded to speed off in front of me.  My guess is that he thought he had annoyed me enough for me to try to chase him.  I didn’t, but he kept getting stuck at red lights so that I kept catching up with him in spite of his obvious efforts to lose me.

As a man, I fully understand what happened.  He was trying to show off for the woman in the car with him.  It’s a fact of nature that heterosexual males figure out how to show off in front for females they are interested in at an early age.  Some learn to be smooth with words.  Some learn to flaunt their intelligence.  Some (like me) try to act invisible.  Unfortunately, some try to show themselves to be worthy candidates for that female’s affection by putting other men down.  I guess my long hair was too much for this guy to resist.  He probably felt stupid when I didn’t take things to the level of aggression necessary for him to feel extra big and masculine in front of the woman in his car.  That’s just not my style.

Anyway, this whole incident is just further evidence of how polarizing issues of hair are in the African American community–even for men.  Some people truly believe that I will have no real chance at getting a decent job until I cut my hair off.  These people don’t know anything of my educational pursuits and accomplishments.  They see a black man with long hair and think “thug” thanks to the litany of thuggish rappers with locs like Lil Wayne, Ace Hood, and my supposed twin 2Chainz.  Indeed, that stigma is a part of why it took me so long to consider growing my hair out–even when the majority of my friends where in the cornrow phase of the early 2000’s.  Then it occurred to me that people are generally critical and that someone would have an issue with my appearance no matter how I looked.

For now, I have no intention of cutting my hair off any time soon–especially not after this incident.  It took too much time and energy for it to get to this point.  Besides, I’m an aspiring academic.  Academics generally have a right to eccentricities with respect to their appearance.  (If you don’t believe me, check out Cornel West and many scholars in African American Studies.)  I just wish that we as a people could get to the point where we accept the plurality of looks that exist among us instead of trying to create our own hierarchy of acceptable black male hair.

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About Spencer

Spencer T. Clayton is a typical millennial who believed his mother when she told him that he was capable of accomplishing great things (and as a result has amassed a large amount of student loan debt). When he isn’t blogging, he is either out with friends, writing and performing music, or busy working as an Executive Pastor and Consultant while simultaneously pursuing a PhD in Public Affairs.

  1 comment for “A Hierarchy of Acceptable Black Male Hair?

  1. vickey
    November 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm


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