When University of Illinois at Chicago professor Dave Stovall heard about the NFL making a donation to a Chicago nonprofit that helps young boys in Englewood, he had his reservations. As a professor of African American studies and criminology, and a community activist, he says, “I have very low expectations” around this kind of corporate charity.
So it hardly seemed surprising when, on the day that the NFL held its opening celebration in Chicago, Stovall and other skeptics were treated to a Twitter storm that exploded around Crushers Club, the boxing program that would be getting $200,000 from the NFL’s Inspire Change social justice campaign, a collaboration with the Players Coalition and Jay Z.’s Roc Nation.
October 2016 tweets from Crushers Club founder Sally Hazelgrove showed Hazelgrove, a white woman, cutting the dreadlocks of a black teen who is part of her program. “Another Crusher let me cut his dreads off! It’s symbolic of change and their desire for a better life!” Hazelgrove posted.
Twitter user @RezstProgramming highlighted those posts, along with a mention from 2018 of young people eager to pursue a police career (“Our Jr CPD they can’t wait to arrest someone!”) and another 2018 reference to Trump that stated Chicago needs “a curfew while we address our current crisis of gun violence.”
Social media blew up, and Stovall found himself “inundated with it for 48 hours.” He, like a lot of other people, also found himself dismayed and angry. “Here’s another situation where the thought is good, but the execution is questionable at best,” he says.
Hazelgrove emailed an apology to USA Today, saying that she tweeted about the haircutting “without much thought” and that she regrets it and would not cut a young man’s hair again. She also noted that the backlash had taken her by surprise.
Yet, for someone who has done this work for several years, lived in Englewood and won many accolades and awards for her work, Hazelgrove’s posts managed to sound remarkably clueless to observers who follow social issues closely.
The Crushers Club controversy touches on several thorny, painful issues around inherent racism: efforts to reshape black bodies to meet the expectations of business or other communities; the fraught relationship between young men of color and police; the repression of black self-expression and culture.
In this case, all of that is wrapped in another thorny issue. Stovall terms it “do-gooder syndrome.” Charitable people with good intentions who are trying to do good things, he says, can be easily tripped up by assumptions or lack of cultural sensitivity. “This is when you come in thinking you’re going to contribute to the community, but instead you further marginalize the community.”
Starting with their hair. “It’s amazing how often people find dreadlocks to be a particular kind of offense,” says Noliwe Rooks, a professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University who frequently writes about the cultural and racial implications of beauty and fashion. “And so there’s a long line of people saying, ‘I want to make you successful, but first we have to cut that hair.’”
Too often, Rooks says, people look at poor black youth as a population with inherent problems, rather than a population that is in a set of problematic circumstances. “Nobody’s telling the coal miners in Appalachia ‘Go fix yourselves, go cut your hair, put on a suit and walk around every day.’ Only with nonwhite people do you see that the first, second and third response to what might be broken is ‘You are the problem.’ “
In fact, black hair has been mentioned as a stumbling block to success so often, Rooks points out, that legislation was recently passed in California making it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of hairstyle. “We need legislation to protect people from these scissor-wielding white gatekeepers,” says Rooks.
The insensitivity to issues around black hair and its link to history and identity were compounded by using the cutting of locks on social media, says Stovall. “It doesn’t matter so much the young person saying ‘I wanted to cut my locks and try something new.’ It’s the positioning of the thing when you then put that out there in the public sphere. It makes no sense. The whole thing makes no sense.”
Then again, says Rooks, “if we can all finish with talking about the hair issue, then maybe we can get around to Jay Z. and the NFL, and talk about what is really standing in the way of these communities doing well.”
The NFL, as Stovall sees it, pushed for community investment without taking the time to fully investigate community needs. “It’s pro forma, from someone who has no knowledge of a specific community and its needs,” he says. “It completely comes off as random.” He suggests that “this might be a teachable moment, so that when you say you have vetted community organizations, well, what does that mean?”
“Here you have an organization that is making its money on the backs of players, many of whom come from this same kind of background,” says Rooks. “They could even have asked their players, ‘What do you think people in Chicago neighborhoods might need?’ “
That, both Rooks and Stovall say, is the key to curing the cluelessness that can come with do-gooder syndrome: Ask first, and then listen intently. “It never ends well, to my mind, with my metrics, when white people start running into a neighborhood saying ‘Let me fix you,’ “ says Rooks. “The very first thing should be going into those communities and asking folks what they need, what they’ve tried, what the problems look like from their perspective. And then you work with them, in partnership, to figure out the best way to meet those needs.”
“When people want to come into a community to help, and those people don’t come from that community,” says Stovall, “the first thing is before any assumptions are made, you need to be humble. The second is to commit yourself to listen and from that place, go back and even check again with the folks you are going to be working with and see if you understood what they need correctly.”
Gaining that understanding, they say, is key to making sure that charitable help doesn’t hurt the communities it intends to heal.