Assimilating Only Goes So Far

A man’s hair tells a lot about how he thinks and portray himself. This is one of the first lessons about manhood I learned from my dad. Dad had long, dark dreads flowing all the way to his waist. One of my most vivid memories of Dad’s dreads is when I was 17 years old and he had a heart attack during my senior year of high school. He was lying on a gurney, the dreads hanging off like the serpentine threads of Medusa surrendering to gravity after decapitation. At the time, I felt ashamed, embarrassed looking at Dad’s ridiculously long dreads. They looked so wild and unruly.

At 17, my hair was the most radical it had ever been—in the form of a large afro. My fro rose off my head like a midnight halo, framing my hickory toned face with a contrast of jet black hair. This was so radical for me because most of my life I wore my hair in a conventional buzz cut or a fade, with just a few centimeters of dust-like hair visible. Mom always thought that was the best appearance to give me the best advantage in a predominantly white society. In my mother’s eyes, it looked intelligent, sensible, and academic. She said with my hair short, my handsome features showed best.

Dad, of course, disagreed. He started the process of twisting his hair into dreads after he received a heart transplant, when I was about 7 or 8 years old and he was around 42. Dad’s dreads at the time were tiny little buds, like the little shoots that appear on plants everywhere in the spring. He looked like a new man with a new heart. After three years, he started pressing for my mother to let me grow dreads. Mom was staunchly against it, equating dreads with gangsta rap culture and illegal drug use. Longer hair meant more of a chance of encountering racism and discrimination. Despite my capacious afro, I wasn’t ready for dreads. At the time, I thought of them as fascinating, and even desired to have longer hair, though I was not willing to commit to the time, patience, or potential discrimination it would take to grow dreads. Dad never gave up pressing though.

When I was 16, I felt for the first time the truth of W.E.B. DuBois’ description about the souls of black folk. DuBois writes that the African American contain two souls that are constantly striving against each other for manifestation of the person’s overall identity. With the first soul, a black person sees himself as white supremacy sees him–suspect, subordinate, or even sub-American. With the other soul, a black person sees himself as someone striving for freedom and alien trying to gain citizenship in a foreign land. But most importantly, the latter soul, DuBois argued, is the lens through which the black person can see himself as human. When these two souls clash, they create an identity crisis. I felt this crisis as I gazed at my reflection with my smooth, inoffensive buzz cut. I felt a need to express myself more authentically. So, I grew my hair out.

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I suspect Colin Kaepernick went through a similar awakening. Kaepernick went from a short buzz cut to a gigantic afro that would make 1970s Angela Davis envious. Along with the afro, Kaepernick became vocal about social injustice, particularly the racism and police brutality oppressing black Americans. In this context, it’s not ambiguous what Kaepernick’s afro represents. He’s connecting with the spirit of black pride and activism that spawned the popularity of the afro in the first place. Michael Vick knows this, hence his comments about how Kaepernick should have cut his hair if he wanted a job in the NFL. Vick’s comments were indicative of the pressure minority groups face from within to assimilate into dominant culture.

I faced this same pressure when I decided to go from wearing an afro to dreadlocks. The process of locking hair can be tedious, depending on hair type. For some people, it can take as little as three months but for me, it took a year and a half. Throughout those 18 months, I received plenty of unsolicited comments about my hair, many of them not kind and from other black folks.  Most notably was an incident while I was interning in the U.S. House of Representatives. A black woman stopped me on my way to work and gave me her business card. She was a barber in a shop inside the Capitol, and she told me she had been watching me and noticed my hair. Initially, I was excited because I thought she wanted to help me with retwisting my dreads, since I knew no one in D.C. who could. “No, I want to cut them off.” She shot back. “They don’t look like they’re locking properly. They look a mess.”

She wasn’t the first person, nor the last, to give me their opinion on my hair. While I have gotten some problematic comments from white people about my hair, it’s more hurtful when it comes from black people. You’d think that people who look like you, share your struggle, and can relate to your lived experiences will want to build you up. But that’s not always true. Sometimes we can police our own like crabs in a barrel. This internal policing through respectability politics is part of the insidiousness of internalized racism. It’s the same sort of thinking that applies to the pressure of Muslims to publicly apologize when an avowed follower of Islam commits an act of terror. Racism is so permeating that we begin to think that by monitoring the appearance and behavior of our own, we better the status of us all. Or we’re convinced that, at the very least, we can make it clear to white people that we’re different, we’re not “ghetto,” or like any other negative stereotype they may hold of us.  

Though Vick has apologized, his unsolicited advice regarding Kaepernick’s appearance reveals an example of the double consciousness DuBois wrote of. Vick knows that if Kaepernick cut his hair, he would be demonstrating a willingness to conform to NFL culture, and disavow his stance against white supremacy. In this case, cutting his hair would be a form of castration.

However, I don’t think it would have mattered. Kaepernick has already announced that if he was hired by another team he wouldn’t kneel during the National Anthem anymore. He already made his point, and now his activism is focused on philanthropy and educating black youth. That doesn’t matter. The NFL has irrefutably demonstrated its willingness to employ domestic abusers, accused rapists, animal abusers, and murderers as long as they’re willing to assimilate. Vick is proof of this. So are the dozens of other black men who have been convicted of crimes. But the NFL does not tolerate a man who is willing to call out white supremacy. For Kaepernick to call out the white supremacist, militaristic, hyper-capitalistic culture that inoculates the NFL, he has committed an unpardonable crime. A crime deemed far worse than anything Vick or any convicted criminal committed. Kaepernick is effectively banned. And no amount of post-activist assimilation can change that.

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