image: original: Keith Allisonderivative: Diddykong1130, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Perception is reality, or so the saying goes.
And for many Black Americans, perception has often been the determining factor in their treatment, whether it be in the workplace or elsewhere. This includes hairstyles. It's a sad truth that Black hairstyles have been subjected to discrimination for decades, and that discrimination has often extended into the professional world.
In Cam Newton's case, he's not suggesting that his hair is the sole reason why he's currently a free agent. His skills may not be at the same level as they were in 2015, when he was named MVP of the league. However, as a Black man in a field where he's constantly assessed and compared to his peers, it's not out of bounds for him to question whether his hair could be a factor in his employment status.
The thing is, discrimination is very difficult to prove when you're head and shoulders above everyone else. Your elite performance will keep you popular and employed. The highest performing salesperson is always going to have a job and the employer will always be willing to look past certain things. It's the C students who we really have to use for comparisons. Now comparisons come down to the fine details.
This works both ways another perspective is that maybe the C students understand their role and how being seen not heard, is better for job security. This is also a reality and valid argument, but both can exist in this discussion.
Cam may still have a point, and his refusal to conform or assimilate is still something that not just Cam, but countless people who aren't a member of the majority culture in any environment must grapple with daily and having our radars fine-tuned to detecting the comfort of others. Paranoia is necessary in order to protect our job status. It's called Code Switching, and for some the ability to do or not to do has consequences.
It's no secret that the NFL has had its own issues with racism. The league is currently being sued by Black coaches who "allege" they have been unfairly passed over for head coaching positions. And let's not forget the controversy surrounding the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations positions. The rule has been criticized for not going far enough to address systemic racism in the league.
Then there's Colin Kaepernick, who was effectively blackballed from the league after he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against Black Americans. And let's not forget the Washington Commanders, who finally changed their name and logo after years of criticism that they were offensive to Native Americans.
In this context, it's not hard to understand why Cam Newton might be concerned about how his hair is perceived by NFL decision makers. Black Americans have long been subject to eurocentric beauty standards that prioritize straightened hair over natural, textured hair. This has led to countless instances of discrimination in the workplace, where Black employees have been told that their hair is "unprofessional" or "inappropriate."
These studies provide empirical evidence that this bias against natural Black hairstyles is very real and has real consequences for Black job candidates. This bias is not limited to any particular industry, either. In some cases, the bias is more pronounced in industries with conservative dress norms, but it can rear its ugly head anywhere.
So when Cam Newton suggests that his hair could be a factor in his NFL employment status, he's not being paranoid. He's well within reason to question whether the league's decision makers have a problem with his hairstyle, especially when historical context is applied and when he looks around and sees similarly (and lesser) talented individuals with jobs.