The ‘respectability policy’ has become a hairy subject

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Let’s talk about the hair.

Cue the soundtrack to the Broadway musical theme song “Hair”: “Give me a head with hair / Long, beautiful hay-ahh…!”

Stop the music. I mean real hair!

And respectability. Let’s talk about it too.

The “respectability policy” has taken a hard hit lately, even from people who have taken advantage of it.

All of these themes came to my mind in a bill proposed by Senator Mike Simmons – a North Side Democrat appointed to seat earlier this year – who, like my own millennial son, has a solid head of dreadlocks.

His bill, which was passed by the Senate on May 12, would prevent school dress codes from prohibiting “hairstyles historically associated with race, ethnicity or hair texture.”

I call it the “Cornrow Protection Act”.

Simmons says he was inspired by the plight of Gus “Jett” Hawkins, a 4-year-old from Black Chicago who was told his impeccably braided hairstyle violated the dress code at his school on the West Side, a Catholic school. private.

We have seen what appears to be an increasing number of such cultural clashes in recent years. In one widely covered example, a high school wrestler in New Jersey was forced by a referee to either have his hair cut impromptu in front of a crowd or forfeit the match.

Two years ago, California became the first state to ban employers and schools from discriminating against people because of their natural hair.

It’s okay with me. If this helps schools focus on more education and less on follicular fashions, I’m all for it.

But what got me thinking in Illinois history was Senator Simmons ‘explanation to a Chicago Tribune reporter for Jett Hawkins’ follicle pushing:

“It’s rooted in this policy of respectability that says in order for black people to be successful we have to conform to these really stupid stereotypes,” Simmons said. “We have to wear our hair a certain length, walk a certain way and when we speak don’t speak too loudly. All of this is in place to not be seen as a threat by others. “

If you were a little confused about what is wrong with “respectability”, you are not alone. Like the cancellation culture and critical race theory, the “politics of respectability” has increasingly become a weapon by some and worshiped by others, depending on the situation.

These days, I think of it the same way we aging Baby Boomers often do, as a marker between the “We Shall Overcome” generation and today’s Black Lives Matter crowd.

Harvard professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined the term “the politics of respectability” in her 1993 book, “Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920”, to describe the social and political changes in the black community during this period.

The Black Baptist Church has been revitalized, she writes, as a black self-help center – often run by black women – modeled after Booker T. Washington and anti-racist activism modeled on WEB DuBois, Chicagoan Ida B. Wells and other founders of the NAACP.

The church-based activism of Martin Luther King Jr.’s generation sent a clear and effective message, the movement aimed to build on America’s dream as a land of opportunity, not to dismantle it – and, I might add, certainly not to invade the Capitol.

Later in the 1960s, my younger, impatient, Afro-full black energy generation, often mocking our elders as slow moderates – and worse.

Things change. These days I have received enough similar derision from my own son wearing dreadlocks that I call him “Grandma’s Revenge”. Mom and dad, I have faith, are somewhere smiling at this generational irony.

I sometimes shake my head at the similar rift that opens between the young generation of Black Lives Matter, unorganized and connected to the internet, and clumsy elders, like myself, who show a new appreciation for the clear and simple advice offered to critics. Mixed by Don from CNN. Lemon in 2013, based on comments by Bill O’Reilly, and recounted at the time in an essay by my former boss, editorial page editor Don Wycliff:

– Pull up your pants;

– Stop using the N word;

– Respect the place where you live, for example, no litter;

– Finish high school and thus improve your earning capacity;

– Don’t get married.

I’m not conservative enough to believe this describes everything you need to thrive in life, but it’s a great place to start.

When it comes to hair, I remember the post-1960s advice my role model Carl Rowan wrote in a column when braids became a problem in the workplace: “It doesn’t matter how you style your hair. hair if there is nothing underneath.

Right on, Carl.

Cue the music: “… Grow it, show it / As long as I can grow it / My hair!”

Email Clarence Page at [email protected]

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