Peter Espeut | It's not about hair
When Hopefield Preparatory School in St Andrew last week refused entry to a three-year-old boy because of how his hair was groomed, it triggered a firestorm of criticism against the school, which was accused of racial discrimination, gender discrimination, fighting down black people's kinky hair, and human-rights abuses, including denying education to a child. As I looked at the photograph in the press of the beautiful high-brown little boy, I could see that someone was trying to launch a campaign.
First of all, only by the standards of racist America could that little boy be called black (one drop of non-white blood will do), and his hair certainly is not kinky. Racism is an ever-present feature of Jamaican society, as I have so often written in this column, and evidence abounds; but only a hard-core campaigner would try to drag-race into this particular controversy.
And I am absolutely sure that his hair is clean as clean can be, and so that cannot be at issue here. The fear that long hair may become a habitat for lice is real, and may cause schools to require their pupils to wear short hair.
The real issue, though, is: Does a school - in this case, a private school, receiving no government funding - have the right to make and enforce rules about grooming, including length and style of hair?
And, conversely, do parents have the absolute right to determine the length and style of the hair of their children in every context, such that the rights of schools to make rules must give way to the wishes of parents?
You might say that if a school has rules parents don't like, they can take their child elsewhere. But no! When the parent says something like "I have done my research, and I want my child to go here, so the school must not have a rule that offends me," this is an example of libertarianism, a philosophy that is gaining ground in Jamaica.
Libertarians seek to maximise autonomy and their freedom of choice, emphasising the primacy of individual judgement. "What is right is what I decide is right for me," and libertarians resist any coercive power from external sources.
If a school creates a rule that requires their students to be neat and tidy, including being well groomed, with their shirts tucked into their pants, this would be like a red flag to a libertarian bull. Relativism would trip in: Why should shirts be tucked into pants? How dare you call my carefully disarranged hair untidy? This is my style! This is me! Your definition of 'neat and tidy' reeks of your colonial mentality. You are still suffering from mental slavery!
As I looked at the photograph in the press of the innocent little boy refused entry into Hopefield Prep, I could see that someone was trying to use him to make a political point. His hair was untidy and in disarray! If someone tells me that his hair is not untidy, pray tell, what does untidy mean? Well-groomed hair has a certain order to it, which his unruly curly hair did not. In the face of moral relativism, words often lose their meaning.
To say that we humans dress differently according to the situation needs no defence. Customer-service staff in a bank or insurance company may dress differently and wear their hair differently at work, at a formal dinner, at a Labour Day project, and at church. Children may dress differently and wear their hair differently at home, at a party, at the beach, and at school. Part of what should be taught at school is propriety and good judgement: what to wear when and where.
But libertarian campaigners want to challenge all moral standards in society, and challenge the institutions that promote morality, including the school and the Church; and this includes challenging the meanings of words: family, marriage, normal, neat, tidy, right and wrong. For libertarians, "Anything goes, as long as I want to do it."
Does a school have the right to decide how their pupils are groomed? Do they have the right to decide the norms and values and the type of discipline they pass on to their charges? Everything has limits, but generally, yes: schools do have the right to decide the length of skirts, whether their charges can dye their hair green or orange, pierce their noses or display tattoos, wear jewellery to school, and carry weapons. If they don't have this right, you take away from them their stock in trade.
For libertarians, only the individual is free. Schools and churches are not free to teach what they believe to be right.
Lord, save us from falling into the hands of libertarians!
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.