No easy way forward on hair regulations


Monday, September 12, 2016

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When news broke last week of three-year-old Zavier Assam being turned away from Hopefield Prep School because of his hair, tongues wagged all across the island. But thankfully some of that wagging included necessary conversations about remnants of colonialist oppression in our present day society. 

Zavier's mother Dr Penelope Amritt was told to cut his hair on several occasions but refused because she wasn't 'ready' to make such a decision and has intimated to the media that she feels her son is being discriminated against on the grounds of gender.
On this, it is only fair to submit that while we are all equal as a result of innate human dignity, in such a conversation equality is not on par with sameness. Boys and girls are equal as human beings but are biologically different and have, in all periods of history, in all places in the world, to lesser or greater extents, had different expectations with regards to dress and grooming.

Schools have rules and the vice-principal's alleged 'rules are rules' comment is indeed correct. Rules are rules and they are no less binding because one person or even a large group of people do not like it. Gender discrimination is not at play in this circumstance or any such circumstance when grooming regulations differ according to one's sex, not when a societal majority accepts that there must be physical demarcation of the sexes. Perhaps though, society must question whether hair is truly important in that physical demarcation.

That said, a great part of the validity of a rule comes from its consistency in its application. And so if there is indeed any truth to Dr Amritt's remarks about her daughter Zina being mandated to tie up her hair but the same or something similar not applying to caucasian children, her argument about unfair and discriminatory practices begins to hold water. Unnecessary demarcation between races would reek of colonialist mindsets.

Some may, with reason, accuse Dr Amritt of stirring things up but her protest and subsequent highlight of such protestations has brought an important and necessary discussion to the fore once again. And indeed the answer to unfair, discriminatory rules is not to turn tail and run. One may reasonably maintain that she should have used reasoned arguments to persuade the school administration or attempt to, instead of having the matter splashed in the media and potentially tarnishing Hopefield Prep's reputation, as that is how one goes about petitioning change in ordered society. But we must all be grateful in the end that this discussion about blackness and black hair and grooming regulations in post-colonial Jamaica has been brought to the foreground. This discussion is the crux of the matter, not so much whether we ourselves, or the school's vice-principal or the Minister of Education likes or dislikes Zavier's hairstyle.

Black hair is not dirty or untidy simply because it is kinky, curly and grows from a black person's scalp. Dirty hair is dirty hair, uncombed, untidy hair is just that as well, and a spade is a spade - we are under no illusions. But it is time that we shed our former coloniser's mindset that our hair is bad or somehow wrong. 

Black hair is not untidy just because it has not been pressed, processed or wrangled into colonially-approved modest buns or lifeless, straight shoulder-length sheets. There may be standards for hair grooming, and those might just exclude some beautiful styles that are popular but these rules must not be cover-ups for institutionalised racism. 

The administration of Hopefield Prep and all Jamaican schools - private and public, primary and secondary level - would do well to examine their rules regarding student grooming and the spirit behind these rules, and take steps swiftly to rid racist, unkind notions about what is 'good' or 'clean' hair from the minds of those in authority and those left to influence young minds in any way. Administrators and teachers at all Jamaican schools, particularly at the secondary level, must also remember the necessity of education. School administrators must be challenged to find reasonable alternatives in securing student compliance to grooming regulations that do not include or begin with barring students with non-regulation hair from classes.
Unequivocally, no student should be barred from education because of their hair.

teenAGE suggests that high schools add grooming tips beyond merely encouraging regular trimming to their existing curricula for Personal Development or Guidance classes so as to encourage a healthy appreciation for good grooming in students. This may help make administrators' work easier if students begin to take pride in their grooming and are equipped to make good choices about it on their own, with school regulation in mind. Indeed many black people do not know about healthy hair practices and care for natural black hair, and schools should be at the forefront of that push for knowledge.

We note and welcome the Ministry of Education's consideration of instituting a few points of general policy to limit or provide the framework for all our schools' grooming related rules. We would encourage that the rules be more on the general side of merely requiring neatness.

Finally, though it may be hard with the public outrage still very fresh, we must all bear with school administrators as they adjust age-old rules and adjust to rethought norms while attempting to keep reasonable standards for grooming for students of all races and hair types and textures. This, while they juggle their many other responsibilities. We must appreciate school administrators' dilemma in creating and enforcing rules that represent and satisfy an ever-changing society while still maintaining standards.
There is no easy way forward, but we must press forward nonetheless.

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