Column: What’s so wrong about ‘respectability?’ Let’s start with hair.

Let’s talk about hair.

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

Stop the music. I mean real hair!

And respectability. Let’s talk about that too.

The “politics of respectability” have taken a real beating lately, even from people who have benefited from practicing it.

All of these themes came to mind in a bill proposed by freshman state Sen. Mike Simmons — a North Side Democrat appointed to the seat earlier this year — who, like my own millennial son, has a robust headful of dreadlocks.

His bill, which passed the Senate on May 12, would prevent school dress codes from banning “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 Black Chicago 4-year-old who was told that his impeccably braided hairstyle violated the dress code at his West Side school, a private Catholic school.

We’ve seen what appears to be a growing number of such culture clashes in recent years. In one widely covered example, a New Jersey high school wrestler was forced by a referee to receive an impromptu haircut in front of the crowd or forfeit the match.

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

That’s fine with me. If it helps schools to focus on more education and less on follicle fashions, I’m all for it.

But what gave me pause in the Illinois story was Sen. Simmons’ explanation to a Chicago Tribune reporter for Jett Hawkins’ follicle flare-up:

“It’s rooted in this respectability politics that says that for Black people to succeed, we have to conform to these really silly stereotypes,” said Simmons. “We need to wear our hair a certain length, walk a certain way and when we speak, don’t speak too loudly. All of this is set up so as not to be perceived as a threat by others.”

If you were left a bit befuddled over what’s so wrong about “respectability,” you’re not alone. Like cancel culture and critical race theory, “respectability politics” increasingly has become weaponized by some and worshipped by others, depending on the situation.


Columns are opinion content that reflect the views of the writers.


These days I think of it in the way we aging 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 social and political changes in the Black community during that period.

The Black Baptist church was revitalized, she wrote, as a center for Black self-help — often led by Black women — in the model of Booker T. Washington and anti-racist activism in the model of W.E.B. DuBois, Chicagoan Ida B. Wells and other founders of the NAACP.

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

Later in the 1960s, up rose my younger, impatient and full Afro-wearing black power generation, often mocking our elders as go-slow moderates — and worse.

Things change. These days I have received enough similar derision from my own dreadlock-wearing son 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 divide opening up between the young, loosely organized, internet-connected Black Lives Matter generation and stodgy elders, like me, who show a new appreciation of the clear and simple advice offered to mixed reviews by CNN’s Don Lemon in 2013, based on commentary from 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 where you live by, for example, not littering;

  • Finish high school and thereby improve your earning power;

  • Put off having children until you’re married.

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

As for hair, I recall the post-1960s advice that my late column-writing role model Carl Rowan offered back when braids became a workplace issue: “It doesn’t matter how you style your hair if there’s nothing under it.”

Right on, Carl.

Cue the music: “ ... Grow it, show it/Long as I can grow it/My hair!”

Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at

Twitter @cptime