Thurgood Marshall Discriminatory Ban Leads to Push for Change

A ban on dreads by a notable non-profit organization has raised questions about the prejudices that may still exist for black men in corporate America today. Tamon George, graduate student at UDC was invited to attend the 14th Annual Leadership Institute Conference hosted by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. But before he congratulated by his colleagues after receiving the news that afternoon, he received a call back and was informed of the policy and said offer was revoked.

“This was the first, somebody, anybody, and especially somebody of my own race has told me that I’m insufficient. That’s why it was as shocking as it was,” George said.

The national program is held to bolster student leadership skills, introduce them to prospective employers with opportunities for internships and full-time positions, as well as promote a scholarship network.

“Each year, the conference gives students attending publicly-supported HBCUs, including the law and medical schools, a first-hand professional development experience. Students selected as “TMCF Scholars” attend a four-day conference in Washington, D.C. where they have the opportunity to learn from and exchange ideas with some of the world’s top leaders of business and government,” according to the TMCF site, “the secrets to developing professional skills and leadership are unearthed at this conference.”

What the site failed to mention was that regardless of academic accolades or influential leadership positions held that you could be denied on the basis of your appearance.

“I’ve never considered myself anything other than a regular person. It wasn’t until I really started to think about what that type of a ban was saying about black men in general. It’s bigger than just the hair,” said George, president of the graduate students association at UDC and top scholar in his school’s business program.

TMCF implemented the policy in response to some corporate sponsors and financial supporters of the event who mentioned of the unlikelihood that they’d hire someone who resembled George.

This conversation in fact isn’t new. In September of this year, after much media backlash and public outrage, a Tulsa School changed their hairstyle policy that deemed Tiana Parker’s hair “distracting,” according to reports from The Huffington Post.

But the ban Hampton University’s MBA program implemented that doesn’t allow cornrows and locks in its classroom still stands and has been a controversial topic since its implementation in 2001. Sid Credle, Dean of the Business School, expresses that the policy is in the best interest of the students and not about cultural heritage but looking the part.

“We’ve been very successful. We’ve placed more than 99 percent of the students who have graduated from this program,” Credle told Virginia’s ABC news station.  Locks and cornrows do not fit a corporate image, according to Credle. “If you’re going to play baseball, you wear baseball uniforms.  If you’re going to play tennis, your wear tennis uniform.  Well you’re playing that business,” he said.

But one could recall a time in history when Blacks were not allowed to compete in U.S. Open or play in the Major Leagues.

Credle would disagree that the right to wear dreadlocks equates with African Americans progress.  "When was it that cornrows and dreadlocks were a part of African American history?" said Credle. "I mean Charles Drew didn't wear it, Muhammad Ali didn't wear it, Martin Luther King didn't wear it."

Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, Howard Psychology Professor and leading researcher of traditional African cultural rituals for contemporary wholistic mental health practices, expounds on the cultural lineage of locks and black people in corporate America.

“Hair is the phonotype we can manipulate the most. It directly changes how one may view themselves. When we think about the range of black hair you can have any single type of style but that may not uphold the normative European standard,” Dr. Mbilishaka said.

“Locks have always existed. You can find them on the mummies of the ancient Egyptians. It has always been a style, and even again, a style of royalty. The Mau Mau warriors of Kenya wore locks and the Rastafarians saw that as a sign of resistance from European control and that popularity from having locks has spread. In that way hair has symbolism, especially locks. But it does say, basically articulating that when you where your hair in a natural state or a lock style that you are not conforming to European standards of beauty.

“My parents immigrated to Canada in the 80s. We are Caribbean through and through. My father wears locks, had since he was 16 and so does my grandfather. So it is somewhat of a family legacy and a rite of passage. I could never imagine myself cutting my hair.”

George goes on to speak to the differences between American culture and Canadian culture when issues of prejudice are presented.

“Let’s say, if I was in Canada and sit down for an interview of whatever kind, certainly people look at things, whether your short tall, skinny large. Whatever it is. But I know for a fact at the end of the conversation they’ll just see myself. That’s how I was raised and that’s what my mind frame has been so maybe I have a confidence that way, that all the end of a conversation people will just see me for me,” George said.

But it seems corporate America doesn’t have the same “come as you are mentality,” which raises question at to who has the power to define.

“There’s no other group of people that has to have this conversation. The people in power, the people who lead organizations like the Thurgood Marshall Fund, it’s so disappointing that they aren’t progressive thinkers for their own people,” George said.

A petition was started on Change.org in response to the incident and thus far has accumulated over 5,000 signatures.

“When you have all the frustration of hearing a situation like this, it’s important that people have somewhere to contribute. The petition gave us a metric to gage how many people were reaching and how many people are having this conversation,” George said.

“Whatever vision people have of any man, any black man, who wears locks, I’m basically the antithesis of whatever they think. Sure, I should’ve been there without a doubt. Can people not hire me because of my hair, sure, that’s fine, I understand that. What is important to understand is the fact that we have to have this conversation says how far as a people we are behind.”

TMCF declined to comment.

This article was originally published on TheHilltopOnline.com, the digital medium of Howard University's student newspaper.

InterviewsDeJanae Evins