Twenty-five years ago when I was a young assistant professor, I decided to start growing locs. The process of growing locs (often referred to as “dreadlocks”) is basically when hair binds together and remains that way, where it becomes “locked” from the tip of the hair to the root. As I was going through the process I started my hair in twists, which is a method of twisting the hair that is not as long-lasting and permanent as locs. I have described this period of the process as my hair looking rough, as each twist seemed to have a mind of its own and point in different directions instead of having the well-manicured look that I hoped to eventually achieve.

I remember going to visit my parents with this new look, and my mother expressed concern about whether, as a professor, my new employer would “let” me have my hair in that style. She clearly did not approve. I assured her that I could wear my hair in whatever way I chose, but to assuage her concerns I told her that the look was not permanent and that it was essentially a phase. I knew that it wasn’t a phase but I did not want my mother to be concerned about what she apparently perceived as my lack of “professionalism.” A few years later a church mother (i.e., a female spiritual and moral authority in the Black church) in my home church cheekily remarked “I know why they call them dreadlocks, because they are dreadful to look at.”

The negative attitude toward this particular style of Black hair reflects a politics of respectability that some Black folks and other marginalized communities embrace as a strategy to assimilate, gain the respect of the majority culture, and achieve social mobility. This respectability politics has also manifested in other areas of Black culture. For example, a few years ago the Dean of the Hampton University Business School banned dreadlocks (and cornrows) in the classroom on the basis that they have not historically been considered a professional look. The idea that a hairstyle which is such a prominent part of the cultural identity of Black people is “not professional” is perhaps the quintessential example of respectability politics.

Read the complete article in Psychology Today