Mon | Oct 19, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Hair policy infested with racism

Published:Sunday | August 9, 2020 | 12:19 AM

In 1980, George ‘Prince Mohammed’ Nooks had a huge hit, Forty Leg: “Mi seh fi stop spread propaganda pon di dread/Cau di dread nuh have nuh forty leg inna him head”. In 2018, propaganda was about junjo. In the shameful case of the child whose locks were targeted by administrators at Kensington Primary School, the written ruling from the Supreme Court states:

“The mother was told that she had to remove the locks, or cut the child’s hair, failing which, there was a possibility that the offer of a place at the school could be withdrawn. During a heated discussion, the stated reason given to the mother, is that parents do not wash their dreadlocked children’s hair, in a timely manner, and the hair gets ‘junjo’ and this had created serious lice infection issues in the past”.

The problem of lice is not limited to presumably dirty black children in Jamaica with locks. Supposedly clean white children with ‘tall’ hair have lice. In November 2019, ScienceNorway published the results of a 2008 survey on lice infection of Norwegian children. Bjørn Arne Rukke, chief researcher, concluded that, “Personal hygiene and how often you wash your hair is of little importance. Having head lice doesn’t mean you are unclean. Lice only care about finding a head that gives them access to blood.”

Intelligent administrators do not irrationally deny children the right to schooling because of assumptions about poor hygiene and the risk of lice infection. They do not insist that hair must be cut. In civilised societies, science provides an appropriate response. Treat the infection! But this is Jamaica. Racism prevails. Would Indian, Chinese or European parents be told that their child’s long hair had to be cut for fear of lice?

ABUSE OF AUTHORITY

With reference to the Kensington regulation, “no braids, no beads, no locking of hair”, the Supreme Court’s ruling notes that, “The mother made enquires [sic] as to where in the school handbook there was such a rule, and she was informed that it was an unwritten policy based on the experience of the personnel at the school, which had prompted intervention by the school authorities in the past”.

Unwritten policies allow high-handed administrators to arbitrarily impose backward rules. The Ministry of Education (MoEYI), both Jamaica Labour Party and People’s National Party, has long been complicit with this abuse of authority by failing to provide strict regulations applicable to all public education institutions. In August 2018, the ministry published national policy guidelines on student dress and grooming. School boards are still allowed to interpret policy as they see fit.

The introduction to the guidelines confirms that, “The last occasion on which the MoEYI issued specific guidance on student grooming was in 1978 via Circular 33/78, having regard to the unconstitutional practice of refusing to admit Rastafarians to public schools, or suspending them if admitted, unless they agreed to cut their hair.” Forty years later, a child with locks was threatened with non-admission. It shouldn’t matter if the child is not Rastafarian. Hair is a fundamental sign of identity.

Religion should not be the primary criterion for determining if locks are acceptable. Especially since Christianity has long been a weapon to batter-bruise black people both physically and psychologically, compelling self-hate: “Lord, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow”. In a society that devalues black identity, locks are a powerful political and aesthetic statement. Locks make black girls feel beautiful. They can claim the glamour of long hair. When administrators outlaw braids, beads and locks, they are telling black girls to know their place. They are not beauty-contest material.

‘CONFOUNDING ISLAND’

The intertwined issues of hair and self-concept are also related to language. Banning dreadlocks in school is similar to disregarding the Jamaican language. The Supreme Court’s citing of the word ‘junjo’ in its ruling is an excellent reminder that there is another language in Jamaica that does not usually appear in official documents such as court records. That’s the nature of cultural politics in this “confounding island”, as the eminent sociologist Orlando Patterson describes his homeland.

If Chief Justice Bryan Sykes has his way, many more words like ‘junjo’ will be recorded in judicial opinions. Just like lice, some cynics will say! The chief justice knows that the Jamaican language must be taken seriously in our legal system. Justice cannot be served if English is the sole official language of the courts. The mother language of the majority of Jamaicans must be acknowledged.

The Kensington case should never have gone to court. The Ministry of Education should have acted swiftly to resolve the matter. Instead, we now have a Supreme Court ruling that has turned Jamaica into a laughing stock in the international media. Whatever the technicalities of the case, the decision makes little sense, especially with the globalisation of Rastafari and reggae.

A reader asked on the Washington Post website, “Anybody else here wondering what the heck ‘junjo’ is?” It’s a word found across the Caribbean, in various forms, meaning fungus, mould or mildew. Most likely, it’s of African origin. In Haitian Creole, the word for mushroom is djondjon. Sounds like junjo. As we celebrate Emancipation and Independence, we must honour our African heritage: language, aesthetics, spirituality, food and so much more. Otherwise, all the high-sounding talk of freedom is pure vanity.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.