“The notion that traditionally black hairstyles are synonymous with being unsuccessful speaks directly to the pathologizing of blackness that this country is known to do—and our “leaders” are too often the ones elevated to do it.” – Dr. Andre Perry

During this year’s “Steve Harvey National Mentoring Camp for Young Men”, Steve Perry tweeted:

“I witnessed 200 boys VOLUNTARILY cut dreads, braids & unkept fros bc @IAmSteveHarvey @USArmy connected aesthetics to success. Powerful.”

The tweet went viral, attracting attention and a widespread expression of disapproval. Mr. Perry defended himself heavily on his twitter page, claiming that while two hundred boys were taught love and discipline, people were more worried about haircuts. In efforts to give this man the benefit of the doubt, I decided to do an extensive read of his twitter timeline. Indeed, the tweet shown above was but one of numerous stories shared about the camp’s success. However, after spending time reading Dr. Steve Perry’s twitter timeline, I can deduce that he may not truly understand the reasons behind the discontentment with his statement. With tweets such as “Every generation has hairstyles. The issue is that the PREVIOUS generation has the jobs, companies and opportunities. Facts are facts,” it’s as if he feels the outrage is simply about haircuts. It isn’t. It is much deeper.

How powerful would it have been to see these black boys embraced and empowered to wear their dreads, braids, and afros with pride? How powerful would it have been for hair stylists and barbers to have come into that camp to groom the current hairstyles of these men? Instilling in them a sense of individuality and confidence that their pathway to success could be their intellect and decision making. That while their outside appearance may represent a culture, a brand, or a stereotype, they are to overcome the negativity that they may encounter by striving towards their goals with silent aggression. With fervor and grace, they should have been reminded that their hairstyles are an extension of their personality. Their culture is one to be proud of, one to cherish and uphold until one day they are present and able to teach their children the same.

Telling young men that their only connection to success comes with a clean shaven head and a tailored suit is a false representation of the world we live in today. It’s contradictory to scream “be yourself, be individual” yet also yell “cut your hair, wear this outfit, play the part”. What type of rhetoric are we instilling into the minds of two hundred young boys who are living with an absent father? What image of beautiful are we showing them? Yet while I criticize the methods and the message, I understand the motive.

In the minds of the hosts, they are preparing our young boys to play “The Game”. To be exactly what is “desired” so they can get where they desire to go. The Game of code switching. The Game of adhering to the rules in hopes that they’ll be the lucky ones that succeed beyond the expectations of others. Teaching them that in order to provide for their families in the future or gain access to higher level success, they should show up looking and behaving in a manner that is satisfying to those who control the acceptable image of success.

“Gangbangers vowed to stop gangbanging/teen dads promised 2b there for their kids bc @IAmSteveHarvey @USArmy helped them believe in themselves.”

Tweets such as the one above were tweeted AFTER the tweet about cutting hair and received very little recognition. Not because we aren’t proud or excited about this, it’s because all this aside, we still feel as if somehow, this wasn’t his initial focus. This wasn’t what he deemed to be the most powerful thing that happened that weekend. And if so, it wasn’t what he decided to share with the world initially.

“Boys overwhelmed by hatred of absent fathers forgave them tonight & decreed to be better men than they were. Goosebumps. @IAmSteveHarvey” -Steve Perry

These tweets and other moments had at the Steve Harvey camp are beautiful. They show black men partnering to help and empower our young boys to be responsible and loving towards themselves and their communities. The stories shared are powerful. They are inspiring. And they are not the problem here. The only problem that we have is that these two hundred boys were taught that a certain aesthetic may lead to a certain success. I believe the only reason they would have voluntarily cut their hair is if they were convinced that their particular aesthetic was not the proper one that led to success.

We can uplift our boys into men with all the rhetoric in the world. We can teach them discipline, we can teach them love. And we should. These things are essential to their life journeys. But while teaching them these things, we must also show them that authenticity and commitment to their own desires is also essential. Individuality and culture are also essential. What Steve Perry calls “just a hairstyle” is much bigger than such. It’s bigger than a fashion trend and it’s bigger than a generational fad. If we ever expect to be respected for who we are and how we choose to express ourselves, we must combat the narrative that clean shaven, blue suits and ties pave the way to success. We must embrace that we can teach our children to love others, themselves, be successful, be disciplined and do so all while rocking dreads, braids and groomed fro’s.