Ardene Reid-Virtue | I am not my hair nor my skin
I write against the backdrop of unsettled racial tensions that have spread across countries as people who are angered by the oppression of Blacks reverberate the call for justice, love, peace, and an absolute eradication of discrimination. An element of the protests is the removal of several statues in the United States of America, United Kingdom, Belgium, New Zealand, India and South Africa. As I reflect on the determination to disintegrate and disempower any reminder of the 400 years of bondage, I contemplate how some Jamaicans have sought to preserve the monument of self-loathing – one that necessitates a figurative dismantling.
I want to highlight how many Jamaicans have been preserving the legacy of imperial rule; that is, the warping of individuals’ identities. I invite you to consider the context of how some people persist in a mean-spirited way to apply use of synecdoche as they reduce others to a physical attribute/characteristic, thereby minimising an individual’s identity to just that one thing. This becomes noticeable when people’s legal names are forgotten because some persons are intent on calling others by aliases such as ‘Blacks’, ‘Nose’, ‘Bulby’, ‘Fatta’, ‘Teet’, and ‘Madeeks’, because an individual may be very dark in complexion, has an enlarged nose, has bulbous eyes, is overweight, has crowded teeth, or has hair that is perceived as being unsightly when left in its natural state.
While, in some cases, people are not insulted by the names because there is some associated fondness, in many situations the references are employed to poke fun at, and demean, persons because the physical attributes are perceived as ugly. In the latter, the name-calling preserves the colonial practice that stripped individuals of their true identity, and functions similarly to the use of racial epithets. Let me elaborate on the matter of discrimination against hair as an example of colonial legacy that has been apparent in social and institutionalised constructs intended to shackle some in the inferiority complex, and operate to marginalise.
‘The dreaded locks’
A specific evidence of the maintenance of imperial culture becomes overt when a parent has to challenge a school’s administration who denies a student acceptance on the basis of him having ‘the dreaded locks’, as they were historically labelled. Seemingly, such an institution does not care about or prioritise the student’s intellectual capacity, talents, values nor personality because his identity is automatically delimited to his hair. In another case, a school’s supervisor forces a child to unravel her ‘Chiney bumps’/Bantu knots because the hairstyle, though groomed, is viewed as inappropriate for school. The reason for this perception is that we were taught that such a hairstyle should only be worn at home on a Saturday after it has been washed. As well, dreadlocks and Bantu knots belong to the indigent and subjugated, with whom any form of affiliation is unfavourable. When will we accomplish what the great Bob Marley sagaciously advised? “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” I also reference India Arie’s song, I Am Not My Hair, which teaches us that persons are neither their hair nor their skins, but the souls that live within. Therefore, identify people by their substance.
‘Maddy maddy’ hair
Based on my experience in the school context, when an Indian or Chinese, for example, let loose his/her hair, which sometimes appeared dishevelled, I never witnessed nor heard of anyone finding the hair displeasing or embarrassing. However, as soon as an African descendant decided to wear his/her hair in a puff or any other style that afforded it some freedom, individuals were told that their hair appeared ‘maddy maddy’, or it was labelled as ‘bud nes’ and ‘kata’. Additionally, the entire school became aware of the fact that such a student was called to an administrator’s office, reprimanded and told to ‘fix’ the hair.
Note, while I promote love for our hair, there are instances in which some hairstyles do appear unkempt because little effort is made to comb or style it; thus, do not think that because your hair is kinky and there is a natural hair movement, you should not groom it. With that said, I must express my antipathy for all expressions against anyone’s physical characteristics that are meant to jeer, cause damage to self-esteem and ignore the core of persons’ self-definitions. This treatment identifies with the colonial masters who corrupted the identity of Blacks, and lessened them to the colour of their skins in the cruel process of dehumanising, while subjecting them to a state more fit for animals.
What has helped me to survive any form of discrimination is the knowledge that many deride because they are miserable in their own skins, and seek to inflict their insecurities on others in trying to alleviate their discomfort. My proven tactic to win this war is to counteract with the shield of self-confidence and the spear of self-love. To all who have suffered, do not permit others to diminish your identity to a mere body part, or anything otherwise. Instead, be resolute in letting them know you are a wealth and depth more than such a superficial and narrow characterisation.
Importantly, I repudiate the regularly issued pretext that slavery is responsible for how we ill-treat each other, because if we continue to accept this, there may be a forever perpetuation of hate and prejudice in Jamaica. Everyone is accountable for the disparaging words and labels that escape his/her lips, and the evil actions that mimic colonial behaviours. As we move forward, let us bond hearts and verve in our own country to non-violently and lawfully oppose all elements of isolated and systemic discrimination, abuse, and marginalisation.
Ardene Reid-Virtue is a senior lecturer, School of Languages and Literatures at Church Teachers’ College. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.