among HBCUs, professionalism and the respectability politics that seem to be rooted in everything
let's talk about professionalism and its anti-Black existence at HBCUs
capstone: the anxiety-inducing moment florida a&m university students plan for throughout their entire journalistic matriculation.
within our school of journalism and graphic design at famu, students are told about a project that they’ll encounter during their final semester that they must pass as a requirement to graduate. this project includes creating a portfolio of your work, understanding basic law and ethics surrounding the media and presenting the entire project in front of a few professors or alumni. sounds like a common thing at schools, right? here’s where the least relatable part comes in.
among the many guidelines and tips, students in my class were given a powerpoint with standards for attire during their presentations. although i expected to see a few casual rules (for example, no open toed shoes or bare legs), the remainder of expectations were anything but ideal. the next three powerpoint slides had pictures of different black hairstyles accompanied with a thumbs up or thumbs down. (pictures shown below)
adding this one here, too, because my tattoos are cute and it is rude that i will be receiving points off just for having them! it’s called style!
my first thought was, “how many points will be taken off of my presentation for a strand of color in my hair?” it was comedic to see these ridiculous standards until someone in my class was actually worried about being their authentic self and/or having a new color-friendly style in their hair. among the many things that students have to worry about during our final semester and wrapping up capstone, now we have to worry about maintaining “professionalism” in our appearance?
it’s obvious that respectability politics run rampant on HBCU campuses. i’m definitely not the first to say it, experience it firsthand or critique it. fellow journalist, organizer & spelman alum (that i admire so much!) clarissa brooks has written multiple stories about HBCUs, including this article for black women radicals about how representation and respectability won’t save us. throughout this amazing interview with brooks, this quote stood out.
“Representation and respectability will not save us. I think that is the downfall of neoliberalism in general because sometimes we think that all we have to do is get someone who looks like us and then we will get it free. It doesn’t work that way and that is not enough and it will never be enough.”
brooks — along with multiple twitter users — have challenged what ‘black excellence’ really means at a HBCU when it doesn’t happen to include queer, non-binary, lower income, disabled and other marginalized groups within its narrative. in my experience at famu, which i will thoroughly write about in the forthcoming months, i’ve seen how students that don’t fit a certain mold are often othered or alienated on campus among peers and/or administration. there’s some intersection here about how you can only qualify for black excellence if you subscribe to professionalism and the anti-black traits that follow.
why do i reference all of this, i.e. anti-blackness, black excellence, respectability politics? because there’s work to be done. i was invited to a recent twitter spaces hosted by scalawag magazine about safety at HBCUs, and i mentioned something along the lines of “critiquing our HBCU while fully acknowledging our love for it is necessary.” ((there’s a golden quote somewhere in there)) i love my HBCU. i love the opportunity to attend my j-school. but along with adoring my school, we need to acknowledge how HBCUs have ingrained white supremacist views. students do not deserve to receive points off of a major grade for having a visible tattoo, nose piercing or red highlights in their hair.