Don’t Touch My Hair: Black Women Navigating the Ivory Tower - Higher Education
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Don’t Touch My Hair: Black Women Navigating the Ivory Tower

by Cheron Davis

Don’t touch my hair
When it’s the feelings I wear
Don’t touch my soul
When it’s the rhythm I know
Don’t touch my crown
When it’s the vision I’ve found

R&B artist and younger sister to Beyonce, Solange’s 2016 breakout hit “Don’t Touch My Hair” caused many to stop and listen. And listen well.

Even those who ignored her passionate “laying-on-of-hands” scene in the elevator with a certain in-law, are now clear that the fire and fervor with which this sister operates in her gift is sprinkled with Black girl magic.

And although the elevator scene offered no sound (although we could all safely guess the colorful language that permeated the atmosphere), “Don’t Touch My Hair” is Solange’s offering to us of a powerful anthem that resonates with women of color on a variety of spectra. Her declaration that her “hair is her (expletive deleted)” is pretty boss and solidifies her stance that she will not compromise her beliefs and identity to accommodate others.

Unfortunately, for female scholars of color, particularly those of us in higher education, our crown is as much a curse as it is a gift.

As a professor of higher education and junior faculty member, I find that opportunities to engage in discourse surrounding how women of color navigate the professoriate successfully are critical to the support and empowerment that has, for many, been nonexistent.

And would you indulge my transparency for a moment? We are family, right? I’ll say it: We are probably our worst enemies and harshest critics.

I attribute much of our dissonance and criticism toward one another to our learned coping strategies with the racialized and gendered oppression that we face daily. So many times, Black women are characterized as powerful, angry, emotional and vulnerable individuals often with fewer resources and exponentially more challenges than our White counterparts.

The painful and difficult experiences we face are further minimized by the perception that we have “overcome before and will overcome again,” when many times these experiences manifest themselves in the imbalance of our home and work lives, including our relationships with our partners, children, extended families and friends.

The recent loss of a number of prominent Black female HBCU administrators is downright frightening and begs many questions: Were they the right fits for the jobs? The institutions? Did they do their jobs well? Or were they simply victims of toxic, gender-based politics of the chocolate tower?

I believe we, as women of color in higher education, are gifted and cursed by our feelings. Many of us wear them on our shoulders each day. Other of us have been conditioned to hide them in exchange for a mask of strength and indestructability —not because we want to, but because we have to.

Institutions must begin to address the emotional health of their faculty in a way that speaks to the cultural and gender-based uniqueness of work challenges. Many a junior faculty member has experienced that tenured female faculty member whose seniority, history and ego won’t allow her to work collegially and collaboratively without being in her feelings.

It may be your hair one day. Or the way you dress. Or even your looks.

She either refuses or is unable to foster an environment of scholarly productivity. And those of us who pledged sororities see the parallel of these experiences to that of the familiar trek through the “burning sands” of tenure and promotion, a road paved with obstructionism, lies and unproductive chatter.

I recall an administrator’s very timely advice to “take care of my mind, body and spirit — all three — or else you’re no good for your job, your spouse, your kids or anything else.” I believe that. And as women of color, we must rally around the idea of supporting one another as we matriculate through the ranks of higher education.

There is enough room at the table for all of us, and a definite need for the research and knowledge we bring to our respective fields. I believe the most critical needs for female faculty of color are:

· H-Help. We all need help from time to time. But not just any kind of help. We need thoughtful, no-strings-attached, wise counsel from mentors and veterans. The spirit in which the assistance is given is very important. Even the Most High loves a cheerful giver.

· A-Affirmation. We are our harshest critics. Never mind the daggers received by professionally jealous peers and colleagues. Sometimes an affirmation fills an otherwise horrible day with a glimmer of hope. “Well done” or “nice job” goes a long way. And affirmations are free. Give some away when you can.

· I-Independence. The spirit of collaboration and hard work is important to the success of any organization, but it must be balanced with an environment that fosters individuality. Each of us is a valuable member of our organization, and the expertise and passion we bring to our work should be given equal opportunity to grow independent of our colleagues. We know that two heads are better than one, but sometimes I want to be in my own head, with my own crown, and my own soul, and it is best if you not touch it.

· R-Recognition. Research has shown the importance of rewards in bringing about desired behaviors. Highlight the positive work of our sisters whether it’s in your college’s newsletter, on social media or in the local media. Recognition of the hard work of our peers and subordinates reiterates how important each of us is to the fabric of our respective organizations.

I recently sat down with one of my college’s student interns to discuss her progress in her internship placement. She is a brilliant scholar and a visionary whose passion lies within the early childhood classroom. She speaks softly, but her drive is undeniable. She has presented research alongside me at professional conferences, and her work in the classroom and in the field is impeccable. In short, she’s as good as they come.

As she gave me all the highlights of her experience, I began to take notice of her beautiful coif, a stunning raspberry-highlighted afro for which even Angela Davis would take pause. She’s a very strong, mature student whose stature does not give a hint to the true giant I’ve come to know her to be.

So, naturally, I wondered if she had yet been questioned or confronted about her ethnic hairstyle. She smiled as I began to ask the question, as if she knew my thoughts even before I spoke. And then she began to tell me the story of the little boy who followed her up the hall, walking behind her, closely and purposefully, with no destination but plenty of determination. She knew how the story would end. So she turned around and asked him, “What are you doing?” Startled, he was unable to answer quickly and began stammering for the words to explain his lost puppy imitation.

She then made eye contact with the youngster, leaned in closely, and said, “Don’t.Touch. My. Hair.”

You go, girl.

Dr. Cheron Davis is assistant professor in the College of Education at Florida A&M University, where she was named the 2017-18 Innovative Teacher of the Year.  She is editor of the forthcoming volume, “Underserved Populations at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: The Pathway to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” and has research interests in culturally relevant reading instruction and the empowerment of children of color through literature.

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