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What lessons can we learn from ‘dreadlocks’ letter to Penn State player?

Students, professors on campus say it’s a teaching moment

It’s been more than a week since dreadlocks and not football have dominated the conversation about Penn State.

On Oct. 12, the Nittany Lions beat Big Ten rival Iowa 17-12, but the controversy persists.

During pregame warm-ups, Penn State players wore T-shirts that supported Penn State safety Jonathan Sutherland and his dreadlocks, playing off of the team’s rallying cry: “Chains, Tattoos, Dreads, & WE ARE.”

A letter addressed to Sutherland began to circulate on social media after the team’s victory over Purdue on Oct. 5. Dave Petersen, its author, said Sutherland’s hair was “awful” and how “they [dreadlocks] look disgusting and certainly not attractive.”

Petersen also told Sutherland, a Penn State captain, that he missed “the clean cut young men and women from those days” when he attended the school. Sutherland’s teammates C.J. Holmes and Antonio Shelton posted the letter to Twitter, calling that message “extremely inappropriate” and saying those kinds of messages would not be tolerated.

Sutherland went on to respond on Twitter himself, saying, “I’ve taken no personal offense to it because personally, I must respect you as a person before I respect your opinion.”

He then went on to forgive the author of the letter, saying that he was “nowhere close to being perfect and I expect God to forgive me for all the wrong I’ve done in my life.” Sutherland also wanted this situation to be an example that people can learn from.

Sutherland called for people to use this as an example for further discussion about the underlying problems that the black community faces daily. These discussions can begin in the classroom. While this might not instantly solve the issues at hand, it might create the dialogue needed to find a solution to these problems and help educate people to handle situations like these in the future.

Professor Cynthia Young, department head of African American studies at Penn State, sees the situation as an opportunity to open that broader conversation within the Penn State community.

“Not just whether it was right or wrong, but how does one intervene when someone sees a friend saying something like that. I think it’s an opportunity to have a broader conversation about the climate at Penn State more generally because I am sure there are people on campus now who agree with what he said or definitely don’t understand why someone would wear their hair like that,” said Young.

Yet, Young believes this conversation shouldn’t concern only one department and that it should include Penn State as a whole.

“It’s an opportunity across the university, not just Af-Am studies that should be having this conversation, given that football seems so central to Penn State. It seems that it should be a broader conversation.”

Hannah Meers, a senior at Penn State, understands the need to bring discussions like these to the classroom not only for white people but for all races to learn from each other.

Penn State safety Jonathan Sutherland responded to the tweet, saying: “I’ve taken no personal offense to it because personally, I must respect you as a person before I respect your opinion.”

Photo by Allen Kee/ESPN Images

“I mean, if someone didn’t like my hair and that affected what they were saying about me, that would be pretty hurtful, so I don’t think that the way someone is looking on the outside is a judgment at all to their character,” Meers said. “Because he has dreadlocks does not mean he’s not one of the classiest people you’ll ever meet. I think it’s very important for fans of all races to know that we’re all different and we need to cherish that.”

The comment that sparked the most response was the idea of “clean-cut” and how that affects black men and women as they grow up.

J. Marlena Edwards, an assistant professor of African American studies, history, and African studies at Penn State, said these expectations have hovered over the black community for generations.

“We must put things in their historical context. What is clean-cut? What about black hair? Black choices of looks? What about that is such a problem … to admonish their parents, their girlfriend or spouse or partner, even the team for having someone like that?” said Edwards. “I think it’s important in the classroom to put those things in historical context. We can use the context of using styling products that would straighten our hair from its natural form in order to make it more palatable and acceptable in the larger white stream society.”

She cited specific examples, such as Don Imus’ comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team in 2007 and the NBA dress code rule implemented in 2005 that required players to wear suits rather than “urban wear” being worn at the time.

“We can do all of these very easy historical links that can take us away from the conversation about hair and tattoos to how do white fans, white owners, white views and spectators expect black people to perform in public spaces, and it has to be that it is palatable and comfortable,” said Edwards.

This goes back to the question: What is the standard people are being compared to, and is it fair?

“How do we then monitor the words that we use and question when I say something is ‘clean-cut’? What do I actually mean here? Whose definition of clean? Whose definition of attractive? Because all of these choices that we have about what’s attractive, what is acceptable, all come from a specific historical context and they are all political, and we have to start unpacking those things if we want to do better, not just a Penn State society but as a larger one,” said Edwards.

“People need to be more understanding of people’s background and hair choice. It’s just a hair choice. Like, we’re not going around saying things to people who get mohawks and things like that: ‘They need to get clean-cut like other white males.’ ” – Penn State student Jamie Walker

Penn State senior Jamie Walker has faced some of these microaggressions over the course of his four years on campus, but not so much based on his looks as much as his choice of major.

“Being in aerospace engineering, there is very few underrepresented students, so my class there is like two out 130 of us. Sometimes you’re just looked at as not being able to complete the work as good as our other classmates.”

Walker said these insults were only coming from one direction, when tolerance should be happening everywhere.

“People need to be more understanding of people’s background and hair choice,” he said. “It’s just a hair choice. Like, we’re not going around saying things to people who get mohawks and things like that: ‘They need to get clean-cut like other white males.’ ”

On a positive note, many people responded quickly and stood with Sutherland, which would not have happened in the past. Young wants to make sure the public continues to unravel the issues that lie just beneath the surface.

“It’s easy when someone is so blatant to just say, ‘Oh, you know that’s wrong, that’s racist.’ But I think it’s harder to kind of ask ourselves questions around what is the climate like for students of color on this campus, what is it like for faculty of color on this campus, which is really a small minority of faculty and administrators, staff. Can we create a community that feels and is really open to people? I think that’s not just starting from the top, but all of us have that responsibility.”

Carlos Cristian Flores is a Penn State senior, DM(V) native, lover of culture and sports. Follow his journey on Twitter.