About this Blog

The title of this blog, "I'm About to do My Thing," was inspired by Jill Scott's introduction to her poem "The Thickness" from her live album Experience: Jill Scott 826+. In this intro, she warns that the content to follow is "real" and proceeds to deliver a beautiful message about self-esteem in young black girls, what can influence and damage that self-esteem, and the entire village's responsibility--"it takes a village"--to elevate its children.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Racial Discrimination or Common Sense?

Two Alabama towns are home to legal actions that some say involve racial discrimination, and each instance deals particularly, if indirectly, with black males and the ways in which they present themselves. On one hand, I think the promotion of professionalism and awareness of public perception is a worthy objective. On the other hand, promoting conformity for conformity’s sake is a potentially dangerous notion, encouraging young people to "fit in" at the expense of being themselves.

One scene is set in Selma, in which a city ban has just been enacted, mandating that anyone wearing his or her pants three inches below the hips can be fined $25-$100 (the max is $200 for adults) per citation and ordered to do community service hours. Opponents allege that the policy is racially motivated because it’s “geared toward minority kids,” as reported in the Selma Times-Journal. This charge is a bit fishy to me, though. While the ban might be infringing on people’s freedom of expression, it’s common sense that you’re not going to be taken seriously professionally with your booty showing. How much of a sacrifice is it to wear your pants an inch below the hips instead of three? I would argue that young people should learn to start dressing in a way that will help prepare them for life beyond high school.
Blaise Taylor, with clean,
well groomed braids

Really, one could say the same for the second scene, which is set in Auburn. Auburn University Assistant Head Football Coach Trooper Taylor has filed a lawsuit against Auburn City Schools because his son, Blaise, has been prohibited from playing on the Auburn High JV basketball team. The reason? His braids. Blaise’s coach, Frank Tolbert, apparently told the Taylors that Blaise would not be allowed to play unless he cut his hair, to which the Taylors claimed that Tolbert’s rule violates Blaise’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom from racial discrimination (because black boys are the main wearers of braids).

This case seems a bit trickier, partly because there’s a lot of “he said, she said” going on. The Taylors say they didn’t find out about the policy until after Blaise had already made the team. Says Blaise, as reported in the Opelika-Auburn News, “I worked hard to make the team and make it through the cuts. I was really disappointed I wasn’t going to get to play with my teammates.” Still, there are sentiments to the contrary. Some of the comments below the story indicate that the policy was made clear well before tryouts, as Tolbert has been using this rule for over 30 years. (Then again, maybe we should take these comments with a grain of salt. They’re not part of the reported story…)

To return to the idea of professionalism, though, it’s probably safe to say that braids are not generally favorable. Yet, I don’t think they connote the same meanings as sagging pants. No, it’s not appropriate to show your underwear or derriere in any kind of business or educational setting. However, hair that is neat, clean, and well groomed shouldn’t be an issue, whether it’s braided or not. In another statement from the Selma Times-Journal piece, “The suit claims Tolbert, a black man, targets black players only, while allowing white players to play ‘even though their hair is long, blown out, unkempt and/or even gets in their own eyes, or the eyes of others.’” Of course, prohibiting braids and allowing hair that actually is unkempt could certainly be considered discriminatory.

Such a position was highlighted in professional cases in the late ‘80s when American Airlines and the Hyatt Regency Hotel were involved in suits by employees who had been fired because of their braids. In 2001, more cases involving FedX and UPS dealt with discrimination against dreads. In the 21st century, though, cornrows and dreads have become much more acceptable in the professional world and have been deemed appropriate in many companies’ grooming policies.* I think it’s safe to say that ideas are starting to change about braids and dreads; they don’t necessarily mean criminal or thug anymore. Now, much of mainstream society is starting to understand that these hairstyles are simply expressive, but they can be so without being extreme or distracting.

With that said, I applaud measures that discourage immature, potentially counter-productive expressions of fashion, but braided hair (sans crazy designs or colors) doesn’t necessarily fit those descriptions. I hope decisions in both Selma and Auburn are based on good sense and not outdated ideas about “acceptability.”

* See Tracey Owens Patton. “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair.” NWSA Journal 18.2 (2006): 24-51, 37-38.


  1. Thoughtful and informative post, Mo. I had no idea this was happening, being well outside the Alabama loop now. But my gut reaction is that these are clearly discriminatory policies designed to target specifically young black people. But I suppose if there is proof of equal enforcement, regardless of the 'perpetrator's' skin color, then maybe it's more about professional appearance and social conformity (and community comfort level with anything that looks different from the norm). I think you're right about the hair, though- braids and dreads are much more common now in professional environments- I would suggest this is just these towns being fearful and backward-looking.

  2. I'm not mad about the issue in Selma, because I don't think anyone should be forced to see people's behinds, but I take issue with the Auburn case. If this child was trying to get into a professionally based organization, I could understand the rule; but, he's just trying to play sports. Look at many of the college and professional athletes today - they wear their hair in locs and braids. If it isn't a problem for athletes at more advanced levels, why is it a problem at this school? Just makes me wonder what the motivation is...

  3. The Auburn HS coach is doing his players a disservice by having that rule in place. If I asked him his reasoning behind not allowing his players to wear braids and have no problem with other players having long, greasy, unkempt hair, what how would he reply to that? What would he say to justify that? I can't think if a single thing.

    And the Selma law is a slippery slope, I think. I'd be much less opposed to that ban if it was based on a person's underwear actually being visible. Seems like a small distinction but without it, that's a pretty arbitrary law.

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  5. Selma Lord Selma! I think they got that one right though. The Auburn issue is interesting on several levels. The head coach at Auburn High is a black man. Im sure his decision is just as much a generational thing as anything else.

    However, I believe that the "professionalism" argument is rediculous. Teens of all races typically copy the hairstyles of popular cultural icons like athletes and musicians. How in the world is this going to affect their professional careers that are in some cases 10 years away. Blaise is a 9th grader.

    When I was in high school, all the guys wore hairstyles like the popular rappers and athletes. We all had high-top fades. Toay these guys are in professions such as business owners of computer software companies, Microsoft Engineers, lawyers, doctors, and State Coordinators. Thank goodness no one tried to base our career potential off of our choice of hairstyles.

  6. The Selma policy probably won't hold up as the ACLU has fought such legislation in the pass. I think that such a policy is an overreach of government authority. The government should not be able to dictate how one is dressed. Furthermore, this policy would lead to a disparate impact among African-Americans males who primarily dress that way. So I can see it being rules discriminatory. Conversely, I do think that men (especially Black men) should dress more professional, not to conform to societal standards but as a way of showing respect for the people around you.

    The Auburn case doesn't appear to be racially discriminatory on any level. The family's lawyer will make the case that the child's rights were violated and link his hairstyle to those worn particularly by African Americans. However, in my opinion, I believe that playing high school athletics is not a right, its a privilege. As the coach of the team, he can require conditions that students must meet in order to be a member. Darlita, several teams at higher levels have enacted such policies. For example, the New York Yankees don't allow a lot of hair or facial hair. I would suspect that a judge would (especially in conservative Alabama) would rule the same way.