When Black Hair is Celebrated, Black Boys Face Danger

Middle-class black families can’t buzz their way toward status, but that doesn't make wearing dreadlocks any safer.

by Raz Robinson
Originally Published: 
Naya Cheyenne for Fatherly

Calvin Singleton has been cutting black hair in New York City for the last 32 years. He’s seen hair styles come and go. He’s induced Jheri curls and sculpted high tops. But he doesn’t bring that work home with him. A father to three sons, Singleton gives his boys simple haircuts that are sometimes at odds with their desires for more outrageous looks. Singleton believes hair is a way his boys can “present themselves better.” He believes this matters. He believes he’s doing his sons a service.

Singleton is not naive about what it means for him to tell his kids to keep it conservative. He knows that black hair has been politicized inside and outside of the black community. He knows his sons’ friends have haircuts inspired by musicians, athletes, and artists who aren’t really striving for subtlety. He is aware that the days of the default bald fade are gone too. However, Singleton, now 44, believes that playing it safer with their hair — avoiding dyes and sprawling asymmetrical do’s — might help his boys get ahead and he thinks encouraging self-expression isn’t worth jeopardizing that.

“I won’t allow my sons to do certain things until maybe about 15 or 16, when I know they’re doing it because it’s what they want or like and aren’t just being followers to what’s popular right now,” says Singleton. “It is also distracting because they’re school-age boys.”

Hairstyle statistics aren’t nonexistent, but there’s not a wealth of data. That said, sales of different black hair products speak volumes about shifting norms. Between 2009 and 2014, profit from natural hair care products shot up 12 percent. At the same time, the sale of relaxers dropped 32 percent. Given that black men have traditionally worn natural hair, a majority of this shift can be attributed to black women, two-thirds of whom wore a natural style in 2013 just one year before the sales boom. But, with social media amplifying pop culture in a way that wasn’t possible when Singleton was a child, a more creative, visible, and to some parents, dangerous, approach to the way black males wear their hair has resurfaced in the mainstream. Black boys take cues from the black girls who have been dangling their feet off the cutting edge. They wear nappy afros like Donald Glover or having wild patches of dreadlocks like Basquiat. The battle over the future of black masculinity is taking place, at least in part or in microcosm, on the heads of black boys. For better, for worse, or for dangerous, parents, barbers, and mass media are changing the way black boys understand self-presentation.

A black child’s proximity to mainstream respectability is a kind of social barometer for many black parents. Respectability politics, the tendency of a minority group to police its unique cultural practices, is not universally accepted as good practice in black communities. That said, respectability politics inform a lot of choices made by parents disinterested or just not able — for any number of economic or personal reasons — to challenge mainstream values. But, according to marketing professor Dr. David Crockett, who studies how black families try and avoid anti-black stigma, the way black parents embrace or reject respectability politics is increasingly complicated.

“In my research, I break down respectability into two camps, normative and oppositional,” Crockett says. “If we’re talking about hair, normative respectability is essentially the idea that for black boys to avoid anti-black stigma, they should avoid all items and styles associated with it, less traditional hairstyles could be one. Oppositional respectability subscribes to the idea that the things which are stigmatized shouldn’t be, and thus we should change what people think about how we wear our hair by doing it how we want regardless.”

He notes that there’s been an expansion of what is viewed as acceptable among black families actively pursuing normative respectability. Crockett jokes that many families who practice normative respectability “feel like they’re doing the lord’s work” when they start wearing a hairstyle like dreadlocks for example, because they manage to do it in a way that’s well kept, neat, and fits nicely into their normative respectability. While they may not be doing it consciously, many of these families are attempting to challenge norms by subtly seeking permission rather than dismantling the racist norm by developing their own standard. So even though an employer still has the right to fire a person if they don’t cut their locks, the employer that would fire someone for that reason is essentially what Crockett calls the “audience” for families that practice normative respectability.

“These kinds of decisions about how to wear your hair can be very much situation and person specific,” Crockett says.

And there are plenty of families that reject the idea of respectability in its entirety. The irony is the members of those families may now have the same haircuts as the normative families. The kid pressured to keep his dreadlocks neat doesn’t look that different from the kids who just has dreadlocks — at least not to white people.

“There’s a broader question lurking here and it really is about how effective is any strategy that a family uses to sort of say to their children, ‘Hey this is how you manage anti-black stigma,’” says Crockett. “Obviously we see this now because the nation now knows about ‘the talk’, what approach works better is hard to say because there are so many moving parts.”

As Crockett’s study of black families in the south indicates, avoiding stigmatized decisions does not necessarily help black children fit in with middle-class white peers. Middle-class black families can’t buzz their way toward status. Black men are viewed as larger and more dangerous than white men of the same size and black boys are often treated as if they’re older than their white counterparts regardless of their haircuts.

As historians Shane White and Graham White point out in their book Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit, slave owners would shave the hair off of unruly slaves to break them. What’s more, dreadlocks were banned for women serving in the US military until 2017 because they were “unkempt” and “matted.” Black men in the armed services still aren’t allowed to wear them, even if they represent a religious choice.

Orin Saunders who has worked in the natural hair industry since 1983 and owns Manhattan’s Locks and Chops, which specializes in dreadlocked looks, notes that the response to her work has long been overwhelmingly negative.

“When a black person just lets their hair be, it will naturally lock up, and as the rasta movement grew, particularly with Bob Marley coming onto the scene, that’s when locks really started to take off and people started to look at it,” said Saunders. “Girls weren’t big into it at the time, but for boys, dreadlocks were a no-no. It was a negative to wear your hair like that. It led to the concept of it being dirty or a criminal…. In some countries, you could not travel if you had locks. In places like the Cayman Islands were actually going around cutting people’s locks off.”

It’s weird, Saunders says, to see dreadlocks suddenly showing up in mainstream culture.

Black Panther, one of the highest grossing movies ever, made a point of featuring an all-black cast with all natural hair. People noticed and celebrated in social media spaces already enthusiastic about less historically mainstream looks. Black style, now something easily proliferated and consumed, is mixing in with style writ large, blurring what used to be hard lines. No surprise then that parents are letting kids choose haircuts they would have winced at a decade ago.

“I don’t necessarily feel like my mom gave me a hard time, but when my hair started to get long, she’d remind me that it was time to get a haircut. So I’m sure she didn’t like it,” says Erik Washington, 21, a photographer and barista living in Brooklyn, New York. “I feel it’s important to say that I grew up in a suburban area surrounded by white people, so I’m sure if I walked outside in an afro or dreads, they’d look at me like some exotic animal.”

For Washington, who has the sides of his hair cut low with a gaggle of dreadlocks at the top and a handful (that he calls “little Cheetos”) dangling from the back, the act of growing out his hair represents “a new beginning.” Up until a year ago he’d exclusively kept it short, but now, the ability to showcase his personal style feels “freeing.”

In his book Performing Black Masculinity: Race, Culture, and Queer Identity, author Bryant Keith Alexander, dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts at Loyola Marymount University, wrote of the way that he would watch in “amazement and curiosity at the process of pressing hair, and the talk that came out of it,” but how when his mother saw him getting too close to the exchange between herself and his sisters, she would shoo him away and say that “women’s talk” was taking place. It was then that Alexander noted her use of the plural possessive and realized that “women’s talk” was his mother’s way of denoting a “specific gendered relational exchange,” that he, as a boy, was supposed to distance himself from. The comment was subtle, but, in his mind, styling hair and “woman’s talk” became linked. He wrote that, for black boys, masculinity and an attention to hair can feel at odds.

“I would go on Instagram or Pinterest and see men with long luscious hair and be jealous. I didn’t see that at all going to school in Glen Cove or Long Island,” Washington says, laughing. “My haircuts were pretty basic: shortcuts with a fade or a part to spice it up.”

But for many other parents like Singleton, who are afraid that letting their sons wear a hairstyle like Washington’s, hair still represents a potential obstacle to achievement. Experimental hairstyles remain a cause for apprehension.

“My concern for black males is that society is already afraid of us and doesn’t have our collective best interest at heart,” says Dr. Kahan Sablo, 49, whose son who just started Army boot camp three weeks ago. “This current ‘nappy’ style of not grooming or combing their hair concerns me in that it is potentially adding yet another strike against them by presenting an ungroomed appearance, by European standards at least. That can trigger racist America’s reflections of the street ‘thug’ who is untrustworthy and often unemployable.”

His concerns aren’t unfounded. The behavior, style, and mannerisms of black boys are often scrutinized heavily and through the lens of prejudice. For example, black boys are still suspended from school at much higher rates than anyone else regardless of their behavior.

And, as Sablo points out, some of the newer and more experimental hairstyles that black boys are wearing don’t just clash with the more traditional sensibilities of their parents but can make them more suspicious to authority figures who are likely to be prejudiced against them, to begin with. Sablo says he wants to encourage his son and to be “fully proud of their heritage,” but fears that those with the power will hurt him. He is unwilling to assume that people will be able to tell the difference between “cultural expression” and aggression.

According to an NBC News poll, 72 percent of black parents feel that their children will have a harder life then they did and 52 percent feel that their kids will meet that challenge just fine. Those numbers provide a sense of the setting in which discussions of black boys’ hair now take place. Black parents are not pretending that their kids aren’t disadvantaged, they are trying to proactively teach them how to navigate racism and black culture. From there, the kids are gonna have to make their own decisions.

“There comes a point in every child’s life where they have to develop their own style and reap the benefits, and or consequences of that without me standing in the way,” Soblo says.

Washington says he doesn’t know what his boys will do when they are allowed to make their own decisions about their hair. He’s nervous about it, but also content to let them make adult decisions when they become adults.

“Expression is important nowadays ,” Washington says. “Most people are lost and try finding themselves in others. That’s just not the way to live life.”

Illustrated by Naya Cheyenne for Fatherly.

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