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African American Elitism in Academe: The New Good and Bad Hair Controversy

by Fred A. Bonner, II - December 05, 2007

Much like the good and bad hair controversy of yesterday, today I have experienced the same controversies being played out among African Americans in a somewhat different context. It is in the higher education arena that I have witnessed two very disquieting phenomena, both exacting a negative impact on African American faculty. I have noticed what appears to be an ever-widening chasm developing among African American faculty; namely, professional elitism based on academic pedigree and the pervasive “only room for one” mindset that at best quells and at worst kills efforts for collaboration, esprit de corps, and a positive sense of self-efficacy and esteem. This article attempts to untangle these good and bad hair divisions in an effort to improve the climate for faculty of color, particularly African American faculty. For higher education in general and African American faculty in particular, it will become increasingly important to excoriate inequality and injustices exacted from agents not only outside, but also internal to the African American higher education community.

One of my favorite movies is Spike Lee’s School Daze. From the all-star cast of characters to the hip and soulful jazz laden soundtrack, this movie is clearly etched in my personal cinematic hall of fame.  What Lee so skillfully managed to portray in this movie was the range of controversies and cultural baggage that had been a part of the African American experience for as long as history would care to recount. Whether it was a lack of philanthropic giving to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) or the social divisions found to exist among college educated and working class populations of African American people, this movie seemed to lay out these issues in a language and format that we could all readily comprehend.

Perhaps the most enduring and vitriolic issue that the movie tackled was the caste-like hierarchy that many in the African American community ascribed to based on hair texture; namely, the classic “good versus bad hair controversy.” Good hair is straight, soft, and easily manageable while bad hair is tangled, coarse, and unwieldy—colloquially coined “nappy.” In essence, good hair more closely approximates the hair of White people while bad hair is akin to the hair texture perceived to exist among predominantly Black cohorts. This good and bad hair schism extends beyond the literal descriptions of the crown atop the individual’s head and connects to even more enduring social maladies such as skin color and social class divisions.  

Much like the good and bad hair controversy of yesterday, today I have experienced the same controversies being played out among African Americans in a somewhat different context. It is in the higher education arena that I have witnessed two very disquieting phenomena, both exacting a negative impact on African American faculty. I have noticed what appears to be an ever-widening chasm developing among African American faculty; namely, professional elitism based on academic pedigree and the pervasive “only room for one” mindset that at best quells and at worst kills efforts for collaboration, esprit de corps, and a positive sense of self-efficacy and esteem. This article attempts to untangle these good and bad hair divisions in an effort to improve the climate for faculty of color, particularly African American faculty. For higher education in general and African American faculty in particular, it will become increasingly important to excoriate inequality and injustices exacted from agents not only outside, but also internal to the African American higher education community.


Whether advanced through age-old documents setting forth the tenets of a classical education like the 1828 Yale Report or more contemporary measures aimed at institutional ranking such as the U.S. News and World Report’s College Rankings Guide, institutional elitism has been around since the inception of higher education. Yet, despite higher education’s elitist and patriarchical origination, African Americans have historically found ways to establish some sense of agency and fashion their identities within the academy while concomitantly avoiding being co-opted or jaded by the ugly side of academe.  


Unfortunately, what I and several of my colleagues have increasingly witnessed over the years is an ever-growing and disquieting phenomenon—the erection of impermeable divisions and elitist hierarchical structures by some African American faculty, particularly those who teach in research-oriented PWIs, against their fellow African American faculty peers who are not employed in these same type institutions. These divisions and structures are often based on several factors, of which the most pervasive appear to be the perceived status of the graduate institution of matriculation, status of the institution(s) of employment, and status and visibility of the primary faculty mentor (who is typically not a person of color). The combination of these factors contributes to the composite rendering of the pedigree that is subsequently adjudged as satisfactory or non-satisfactory by these African American faculty members employed by these research institutions. The ‘right’ pedigree awards one status and a place in the inner sanctum of this elite core. Membership in this inner sanctum is summarily held in abeyance until approval is granted by the gatekeepers who represent this cohort - a group I shall call the “determiners of good hair and bad hair,” hereafter referred to as the determiners.  

Perceived Status of the Graduate Institution

Perceived status of the institution in which the graduate degree, particularly the doctoral degree, was granted, serves as the first test of good and bad hair status. I have observed a strong degree of sorting and sifting that takes place with this particular test. Not only is the completion of graduate-level training in a ranked institution an important consideration, but also the relative standing of the actual program of matriculation is critical. Good hair is equated to graduation from a tier-1 research institution that is at minimum firmly ensconced in the top 25 – a ranking based on the U.S. News and World Report tabulations. As for specific programs a ranking beyond the top 10 hardly ever guarantees good hair status. Beyond the sad reality that these arbitrary and capricious rankings are often used by African American faculty against other African American faculty to justify the limitation of certain members within their professional communities, is the sobering reality that these same rankings are many times used by majority (White) faculty as the very “barriers” to keep people of color out of Academe in the first place. According to Harleston and Knowles (1997),

A department might be willing to recruit a graduate student from a less elite university, but the prevailing fear is that hiring a faculty member—and particularly a minority faculty member—from a less well-known or less highly ranked school could lead to ‘problems.’ (p. 1)

My personal experience with this dilemma dates back to 1997, the year that I finished my doctoral program in Higher Education Administration and College Teaching from the University of Arkansas.  Despite what I would consider a successful doctoral program experience, excellent grades and two dissertation awards—one national, somehow I found myself looking for faculty positions well past the “hot season” for listed job postings in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Unlike the market today, higher education administration faculty posts in the late 1990s were at best scant and at worst non-existent. Yet, what I did find was an exciting visiting assistant professor position at a small well-heeled liberal arts institution in Louisiana; I had recently accepted an adjunct position with this institution while completing my dissertation. The excitement of landing my first faculty job and being provided with the opportunity to teach was soon quelled by the words and actions of the determiners. Some of their more common refrains included statements like, “So what happened, you didn’t get a position in a research institution?” “Clearly you didn’t do something right; you shouldn’t be in a teaching institution.” “Go back and see who your advisors can call—you don’t have to just settle for ‘any ole’ position.”

At the hands of the determiners, their statements caused me to question my abilities and competence. Had I done something wrong? Had I fallen from grace because I did not secure a faculty position in a research institution? More pointedly, was something ‘wrong’ with me for not only celebrating but also being completely satisfied with beginning my career in a teaching institution? According to the determiners, I had fallen from grace—accepting the consolation prize of teaching in an institution that would surely render me an academic recluse. I had forever sealed my fate and accepted the scarlet letters that were to be emblazoned on my chest: BAD HAIR. Yet, what this experience taught me and the message that I attempt to convey to young African American scholars who choose to seek out faculty positions is that status will come as a result of a job well done.

A leading scholar in my field, Dr. Mary Howard-Hamilton, made a profound statement during a talk at one of our national conference sessions focusing on the status of African American faculty. She stated, “Don’t get caught up in all of the rankings hype; doing so provides a great disservice to the impact you can make as African American scholars. When people come looking for me, they are looking for Mary, not the school where I am housed.” It is important to note that although tier-1 institutions provide opportunities to garner resources and engage in activities associated with research and scholarly productivity—they are not the only institutions that provide these outlets.  Much like what was implied in Dr. Howard-Hamilton’s statement, I believe that we are truly doing a disservice to young African American scholars who are completing graduate programs and who desire to enter the ranks of the professoriate. This circumscribed and parochial view of what constitutes success, how it should be achieved, and where it should be operationalized will invariably continue to lead to more dismal numbers of African Americans who decide to participate in faculty life, many who already view the challenges of a career in academe as unappealing.

Status of the Institution of Employment

A second major factor often entering into good and bad hair discussions is mentioned briefly in the preceding section; namely, the institution of employment subsequent to graduation. Without question, this particular factor is clearly not a preferred but a required qualification to achieve status among the ranks of the good hair community. Securing a spot in a ranked, tier-1, research focused institution becomes emblematic of the initiation of a rising career trajectory. The prevailing belief is that being attached to an institution outside of these parameters might allow one to do “good work,” but certainly it will not provide opportunities to do “great” and more importantly “recognized” work. A certain cache is accorded to the few brothers and sisters who are aligned with these institutions via faculty posts. However, what often operates beneath the veneer is that even in these limited instances in which African Americans are selected for posts in these institutions, it is due to their connections at the graduate level to very similar institutions. In many ways the scenario is all too reminiscent of the chapter Genesis in the Holy Bible—being in a tier-1 begets recognition by a tier-1, which begets a job interview by a tier-1, which begets a job offer by a tier-1, which begets visibility among journal editors who are faculty in a tier-1, which begets publications in journals that are ranked as tier-1.  

Again, what is most unfortunate about this winnowing process is the acerbity it exacts on many different levels. It serves to diminish the efficacy and esteem of African American graduate students who look longingly toward a future among the ranks of college and university faculty. It sets up elitist hierarchical structures among African American scholars, who least can afford to be isolated, in an oftentimes unwelcoming workplace. And, it narrowly defines what it means to be successful and where success should be experienced within the academy. Perhaps the most tragic inequity associated with this process is that this begetting process only embraces a few. One need only take a cursory look at the numbers of African American graduate students who are enrolled in tier-1 institutions; not as rare as in past years, but certainly rarer than not, is the lack of a substantial presence of African Americans in these particular institutional contexts. Hence, it is mere folly to believe that the few African American students who do graduate from these institutions will all end up as faculty.  

What is particularly lamentable about the strict lines of demarcation that are often erected by African American faculty as a means of intergroup segregation is that the longstanding culture, history, and traditions existing within African American communities run counter to these exclusionist and separatist practices. In paraphrasing an exchange between several African American scholars who were engaged in dialogue on a segment of the Tavis Smiley Show, one participant stated, and I paraphrase, “Elitism does not come from our community—we are quick to take on the mores of White, patriarchical, racist society; we are quick to give up on our own sense of identity.” In many ways, it appears that W.E.B. DuBois’ notion of the talented tenth has been gravely misappropriated among African American faculty. The recognition and emphasis on honing the knowledge and skills of a talented tenth should not connote or denote the concomitant de-emphasis and blunting of our efforts to uplift the remaining ninetieth.


In Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-education of the Negro (1933/2000), he speaks to the negative imprint that both a lack of education and racism have made on the psychological frameworks of African Americans. The argument that I am making here concerning elitism and separatism among faculty is the same argument that Woodson made about the broader African American (Negro) population in his 1933 work. Regarding the Negroes’ assent to leadership during his era, Woodson (1933/2000) asserts, “Under leadership we have been made to despise our own possibilities and to develop into parasites” (p. 119). A key contemporary example of how Woodson’s comments have played out among African American faculty is captured in comments echoed by several African American faculty who have participated on various faculty search committees, including one faculty member during a national conference presentation who said, “We don’t need search committees to keep us [African Americans] out…we do it to ourselves.”  

Reputation of Faculty Mentor

The third factor that portends a major influence on the determination of good or bad hair status is the name and reputation of the faculty mentor who is selected to guide the African American faculty member through academe. Part of the success of any newly minted faculty member is identifying an individual or set of individuals who will assist in the navigation and negotiation of the higher education terrain. The familiar triumvirate of teaching, research, and service is not easily managed without some assistance in the form of guidance and nurturing from a trusted mentor who understands the intricacies of these competing entities. One of the first lessons that a good mentor will typically convey to the novice faculty member is that faculty life in a research-oriented institution, if this is their chosen station, is by no means balanced among these three areas of focus. The teaching, research, and service mantra shifts to the harsh realities of faculty life that often involve an overemphasis in research and a de-emphasis on teaching and service—particularly during the years leading up to tenure and promotion. Also, these mentors provide important clues on deciphering the many unspoken rules of the academy that can in very short order lead to success or failure as a faculty member.

Perhaps the most important role that these mentors play is providing entrée to key publication outlets in their respective fields. It is common practice for students who are mentored by recognized faculty in the field to publish with these scholars, subsequently receiving training on not only how to publish in these venues but also on what to publish in order to be recognized by these outlets. For a select few African American graduate students who connect with these recognized faculty members, many of whom are not people of color, they are provided with a significant head start on the tenure track. These students leave their respective graduate programs armed with knowledge of how to get published in the “right journals” and how to engage in research related to the “right topics”—code words for publishing in mainstream (White) journals on mainstream topics. Very early on, it becomes clear for many African American graduate students that getting mentored by these faculty members often means morphing their scholarly agendas to fit the research molds that have been pre-determined to be acceptable and worthy of scholarly investigation.

African American faculty members carry these lessons learned as graduate students forward into their professional careers; that is, they ascribe status to peers who are mentored by recognized faculty and who publish in these limited and selected publication outlets. These lessons serve as the very prerequisites used by the determiners to identify good hair status. This virtual closing of the ranks among these African American faculty members quickly ensues and collaborative efforts for those outside of these impermeable circles become impossible. Again, it is worthy to note that doing good work is typically not enough to overcome bad hair status, particularly if the other key elements in this alchemical mix are not present. Much like what a fellow colleague stated about the importance of hair in a comment she made subsequent to the Don Imus imbroglio, “For Black folk, it has always been about the hair. Many of us are also color struck, but color doesn’t too much matter if you have bad hair!”  

Concluding Thoughts

In talking about the issues presented in this article, I know that I have opened myself up for public scrutiny.  Yet, instead of fear, I feel a sense of freedom in knowing that I have not only attempted to unearth a bit of the bad soil that has kept many African American faculty members from flourishing in the academy, but I have also attempted to in some small way get these same faculty members to think about their actions and the requisite impact they have on the African American faculty community. The dismal number of African Americans who currently occupy faculty positions in our nation’s colleges and universities will only become more dire if we do not put to bed elitist, isolationist, and separatist practices. Far from being monolithic, African American culture has historically tended to center on collectivist practices—we were taught in our most important circles (family and church) that we all “rise and fall together.” The questions we are asking African American faculty members should not be, “Did you graduate from a tier-1?” “Are you currently employed at a research institution?” or “Did you find a high profile mentor?” Rather, the questions we should be asking each other are, “What can I do to support your research agenda?” “Do we have overlapping scholarly interests that might facilitate our development of a writing team?” and “May I assist you in identifying a mentor if you have not already done so?” I know that African American faculty have the capacity to make these positive changes, but it is going to take those who are committed to seeing higher education done differently to take a stand. These good and bad hair distinctions can no longer frame our actions; else I will make the same decision in my professional life that I did in my personal life—that is to go bald.


Knowles, M. F. & Harleston, B.W. (1997). Achieving diversity in the professoriate: Challenges and opportunities. Washington, DC: American Council on Education, Washington, DC.

Woodson, C. G. (2000). The mis-education of the Negro. Chicago, IL: African American Images. Original work published 1933).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 05, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14838, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 2:21:48 AM

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About the Author
  • Fred Bonner, II
    Texas A&M University
    E-mail Author
    FRED A. BONNER, II, is an Associate Professor of higher education administration in the Educational Administration and Human Resource Development department at Texas A&M University—College Station. He received a B.A. degree in chemistry from the University of North Texas in 1991, an M.S.Ed. in curriculum and instruction from Baylor University in 1994, and an Ed.D. in higher education administration and college teaching from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville in 1997. Bonner has been the recipient of the American Association for Higher Education Black Caucus Dissertation Award and the Educational Leadership, Counseling, and Foundation's Dissertation of the Year Award from the University of Arkansas College of Education. Bonner has published articles and book chapters on academically gifted African American male college students, teaching in the multicultural college classroom, diversity issues in student affairs, and success factors influencing the retention of students of color in higher education. He currently serves as an assistant editor for the National Association of Student Affairs Professionals Journal, and has completed three summers as a research fellow with the Yale University Psychology Department (PACE Center), focusing on issues that impact academically gifted African American male college students. Bonner is also completing a book that highlights the experiences of postsecondary gifted African American male undergraduates in predominantly White and Historically Black college contexts. Fred spent the 2005-2006 year as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow in the Office of the President at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
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