As young black males struggle with self-identity, negative stereotypes and self-denigration through much of American media and culture, I believe that Ellis' mission is a critical one, so much so that I purchased copies of his book for all of the young black men serving summer internships at Black Enterprise at the time, as well as for a few of the young brothers I have the pleasure of mentoring. All were appreciative of the gift, but there were those who expressed the view that what we wear should not matter. Much of their argument echoes some of the vehement disagreement expressed by professional basketball players (most of whom are young black men) with the National Basketball Association's imposition of a dress code a few seasons earlier. To paraphrase one of my proteges: "Why should my image matter? The real person is on the inside. I'm the same person whether I'm wearing a suit and tie or a throwback jersey, doo rag and baseball cap. Why can't I just be me?"
I am sharing here what I told them: Suffice it to say that it is obvious that the genuine person is on the inside. However, that fact is usually irrelevant in the world of human interaction and communication. It takes time to really get to know someone on the "inside"—time that most of us don't have in most cases. In fact, most people can't or won't take the time needed to get to know you on the inside (what's in your heart and mind, your motives, your character, etc). So, because people cannot instantly see inside one another to determine authenticity, we rely on what we communicate to each other about ourselves for clues. Fashion—what you choose to wear and how and when you choose to wear it—is a huge part of that communication, whether we like it or not. Ignore that fundamental truth at your own peril.
To excel in certain professions (journalism, detective work, sales or any vocation that involves the search for truth or understanding people) requires becoming expert at reading visual cues in order to discern the reality of who a person is, which is often different from who a person says he or she is (or even who a person believes he or she is). One of the most basic fundamentals of effective communication is that most of it (more than 65%) is non-verbal; in fact, most of it is visual. Science has proven over and over again that non-verbal cues (wardrobe, facial expressions, body language, etc.) speak much more loudly than verbal ones. In fact, the inability to read nonverbal cues has actually been identified as a learning disorder called Asperger's Syndrome.
As I wrote in my forward to Ellis' book, if you are a person of intelligence and excellence, but you are unkempt and dress carelessly, that is just as inauthentic as being a perfectly clothed and groomed person who is lazy, dishonest and mediocre. In both cases you are sending mixed and confusing messages at best, and engaging in deceptive advertising at worst. The most authentic people are those who get their thoughts, actions, words and image to line up to form one cohesive message about who they are (or perhaps more importantly for young adults, who they aspire to become). These people are also usually the most effective and credible communicators—which is what we all should be striving to be.