Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Glenroy Murray | We don't deserve our motto

Published:Wednesday | June 7, 2017 | 6:00 AM

Jamaica needs to change its motto. At some point, we need to stop lying to ourselves that racial diversity is a feature of the functioning of our society. This column is not about how we chose to use racist and xenophobic language against Rankin Pumpkin instead of critiquing her success in Magnum Kings and Queens as a result of her privileges granted by her race, colour and foreignness. This letter is about our consistent inability to fully appreciate and tolerate the presence of black hair and unmitigated blackness in formal spaces in Jamaica.

The incident at Vauxhall, where three teachers violated bodily integrity and bodily autonomy by forcibly trimming a schoolboy, is but an egregious example of a larger social issue that we continue to grapple with in this country. I recall a colleague of mine sharing a story of how, as young professional, she was denied employment as a flight attendant because her 'chiney bumps' were deemed unacceptable for the workplace.

Every year, we are launched into a discussion about hair when schools decide that black hair, whether styled, coiffed or braided, is unacceptable. This conversation is always cemented in a narrative around rules and discipline, so let us talk about rules.

 

SCHOOL RULES MUST BE CONSTITUTIONAL

 

A law is the quintessential example of a rule. It is created and enforced by agents of the State. Our Constitution is the supreme law and the most important rule for which we must have respect. It guarantees that persons have a right to not be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and it acknowledges that children have a right to special protection. School rules must fall in line with the Constitution.

There is nothing humane about holding anyone and forcibly removing a part of their body. This is undeniably degrading and embarrassing. Our constitutional rights require that we do not subject our children to these experiences because they implicitly recognise kids' vulnerability given their age.

While rights are not absolute, rights can only be limited by actions that go no further than is necessary to achieve a public good. If discipline is a public good, embarrassing and treating a child like a farm animal blatantly goes farther than is needed to ensure discipline. We don't need shame our children into conformity.

Another rule is the Child Care and Protection Act, which requires that the actions taken by teachers and school administrators are done in the best interests of the child. I can appreciate that discipline may be in the best interests of a child, but surely a public shaming is not. There has to be a line - particularly because the law says there should be - which teachers and administrators are not allowed to cross.

 

BEYOND THE LAW

 

If rules are rules, everyone must abide them. Teachers and school administrators must abide by the Constitution and ordinary laws.

Beyond what the law says, we need to think about why our society sees black hair as wild and in need of taming. Why do we see long kinky black hair as ugly and nasty? Why are persons who appreciate their black hair and value self-expression seen as de facto undisciplined? What is the history behind rules that require the regular chopping of black hair? Why must the individual expression of black people be constrained?

The obvious answer is slavery and colonialism. The suppression of black identity and the dehumanising of black people are a significant part of our history that we somehow like to pretend does not matter today. Slavery was a rule. Our rules have evolved out of the context of racism and black hate.

- Glenroy Murray is a human-rights policy and advocacy manager. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and glenroy.am.murray@gmail.com.