The policing of black hair
Some schools seem to be more focused on grooming rather than the educating of youngsters. (Photos: Karl Mclarty)

Discrimination against natural black hair violates an individual’s dignity and humanity.”— Rebecca Lucero.

Black hair continues to be policed.

Shockingly, the policing of black hair is not being done by our former European colonisers but by those who have black skin. We have all read about black students being barred from school due to what is deemed inappropriate hairstyles. In most instances male students are the ones whose right to an education has been suspended due to the overarching and misplaced power of school administrators.

Too many of us have allowed power and prestige to cloud our judgement. We tend to bring our personal biases and prejudices to hair. Undoubtedly, each educational institution has the right to establish its own rules and accompanying sanctions. But rules must be relevant to the cultural space in which we live and operate. Even in instances when parents or guardians agree to rules, there must be room to challenge those which make no sense.

Clearly, the discourse is not about students adding colour to their hair or designs to create hairstyles. No student should be barred from school because of a simple haircut, especially after two years of learning loss due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Education Ministry, just over 32,000 students have not returned to the classrooms since the full resumption of face-to-face instruction in March. The focus should be to account for all students. Instead, interestingly, the focus appears to be that of the black/kinky hair of the majority of the student population. The hairstyles of other ethnic minority groups are seldomly cause for concern, if at all, in the education system.

Many of us are uncomfortable with ourselves; our hair continues to be a great source of discontent. Therefore, we must brace ourselves for more unnecessary hair-related interruptions in the education system.

POWER AND SOCIAL CAPITAL

The work of Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), a French sociologist who was primarily concerned with the dynamics of power in society, resonates each time the issue of students being barred from school due to their hairstyle surfaces.

Bourdieu’s work on the sociology of culture continues to be highly influential, including his theories of social stratification that deals with status and power. Bourdieu was concerned with the nature of culture, how it is reproduced and transformed, how it connects to social stratification, and the reproduction and exercise of power. The education system is one avenue through which the issues of social stratification and the reproduction and exercise of power and value system occurs.

Bourdieu’s conceptualisation of social capital is grounded in theories of social reproduction and symbolic power. Bourdieu saw social capital as a property of the individual, rather than the collective, derived primarily from one’s social position and status. Social capital enables a person to exert power on the group or individual who mobilises the resources.

Unfortunately, a majority of our people still have unequal access to institutional resources based on social class, gender, and political connection. As a society, the messages we send to our students, whether directly or indirectly, will be instrumental in shaping the country in which we will likely retire. It cannot be that after 60 years of political independence we are still discriminating against the hair/hairstyles of our black brothers and sisters, an attitude which ought to remain a relic of our colonial past. We should all be on a path of reigniting a nation for greatness instead of creating more divisions in the society.

THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is a universally agreed set of non-negotiable standards and obligations adopted in 1989.

These basic standards, also called human rights, set minimum entitlements and freedoms that should be respected by governments. They are founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, regardless of race, colour, gender, language, religion, opinions, origins, wealth, birth status, or ability and therefore apply to every human being, everywhere.

The convention comprises 54 articles. The four core principles of the convention are non-discrimination; devotion to the best interest of the child; the right to life, survival, and development; and respect for the views of the child. Jamaica is a signatory to the convention.

Articles 28-30, Part 1, are instructive regarding safeguarding the rights of a child to an education:

*Access to education — Every child has the right to an education. Primary education should be free. Secondary and higher education should be available to every child. Children should be encouraged to go to school to the highest level possible. Discipline in schools should respect children’s rights and violence must never be used.

*Aims of education — Children’s education should help them fully develop their personalities, talents, and abilities. It should teach them to understand their own rights and to respect other people’s rights, cultures, and differences. It should help them to live peacefully and protect the environment.

*Minority culture, language, and religion — Children have the right to use their own language, culture, and religion, even if these are not shared by most people in the country where they live.

Section 28 (1) of the Child Care and Protection Act of 2004 states that every person having the custody, charge, or care of a child between the ages of four and 16 years shall take such steps as are necessary to ensure that the child is enrolled at, and attends, school.

The issue of hair discrimination becomes more troubling when the educational institution in question is funded by the taxpayers of Jamaica.

Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms states that as citizens we have the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of being male or female; race, place, or origin; class, colour, religion; and political opinion. Additionally, the charter establishes the right of every child who is a citizen of Jamaica to have access to public schools at the pre-primary and primary levels.

Obviously, responsibilities are attached to rights and, as such, the parent and/or guardian has a responsibility to ensure that the child is properly groomed for school. This responsibility is outlined in The Education Act of 1965, Part 3, 21 (1): “It shall be the duty of the parent of every child of compulsory school age residing in a compulsory education area to cause him to receive full-time education suitable to his age and ability, and satisfactory to the education board for the area, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.”

However, it cannot be that we continue to prevent students from accessing an education by applying a skewed interpretation in order to discriminate against Afro-inspired hairstyles.

UN SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS

Another body of principles to which Jamaica is a signatory is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. The SDGs were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by 2030. Goal #4 of the SDGs speaks to ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

PRACTICALITY OF RULES

School rules cannot be made in ignorance of the wider contextual national and international conventions which protect the rights of the child. Hair discrimination can become burdensome not only for the individual whose hair is being policed but also for school administrators who should have more pressing activities to attend to, such as ensuring that quality teaching and learning is taking place.

Our hair is a part of our identify. Many of us can trace our ancestry to the continent of Africa. Africa is the cradle of civilisation and it’s rather sad that in 2022, 184 years after the abolition of slavery, we are having this conversation in Jamaica. We should not be made to feel lesser than based on our hairstyle. National Hero Marcus Garvey said it best: “The black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness.”

Those who challenge the status quo are oftentimes misconstrued as rebels. However, those who are quick to apply such labels clearly need to revisit their history and come to terms with their subconscious self as they continue to uphold the ideals of the colonisers.

AFFIRMATION OF SELF

During the period of enslavement the hair of black women was seen as a form of sexual arousal for the white slave masters. Our hair, in its natural state, is synonymous with spiritual power and symbolises a deep sense of cultural awakening. It is a very powerful medium of affirmation.

This affirmation of self via one’s hair was brought across forcefully in a work-related activity in which a client’s teenage son was hesitant, at first, to be on camera for an online assessment; however, after the teenager saw my twisted hair he told his mother that he was no longer diffident to appear with his plaited hair.

Regrettably, too many of our students lack the affirmation which is needed for them to realise their goals. Unfortunately, we continue to utilise the education system as a means of social stratification and discrimination. In spite of the investments and strides made in the sector, Jamaica’s education system continues to reproduce unequal outcomes.

The hidden curriculum continues to reinforce the divisive social classes in the society. Undoubtedly, many hidden curricular issues which negatively impact the education system are as a result of assumptions. Those in authority must be mindful of the unintended values and perspectives which students often learn.

Unquestionably, our educational institutions have transformed from those noble spaces where pedagogical skills are perpetually on display. The main focus for educators should be to ensure that our children are in school and remain accounted for. This mandate is especially critical for boys who have numerous unconventional pathways available to them outside of education.

As Jamaica moves ahead in this competitive Fourth Industrial Revolution, a repositioning of ideas surrounding education must be at the helm of any discussion regarding enhancing the educational outcomes of our students.

In the words of Maya Angelou: “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible. “

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or waykam@yahoo.com

All Jamaican children have the right to an education. (Photos: Karl Mclarty)
Afro-centric hairstyles are poblematic for some educational institutions
Wayne Campbell
Wayne Campbell

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