Carolyn Cooper | Hair police teaching self-hatred
It’s so predictable. Hard-headed administrators religiously insist that students who do not obey hair-grooming rules must be kept out of school. There’s the usual outcry against exclusion. Things quiet down. And before you know it, there’s another incident. The triggers vary.
At times, it’s the irrational fear of lice lurking in dreadlocks. Or, it’s hair that’s too high. Students are expected to conform to regulations that do not always take into account the way their hair grows naturally.
Take, for instance, black people’s hair. In its natural state, as it grows from the root, it stretches up, not down. And it can rise to great heights. In the 1960s, when the Black Power movement flourished in the US and spread to the Caribbean, towering afros were the order of the day. They are making a comeback. Then, if black hair is allowed to lock, the weight of the hair eventually makes it fall. And it can grow to great lengths.
It’s completely arbitrary for school administrators to decide that ‘proper’ grooming means that a young man’s hair should be no longer than two inches high. What is the rationale for this decision? The policing of black hair appears to be a classic case of mental slavery. Authoritarian school administrators are trapped in the role of overseer. It seems as if the purpose of these random rules about hair is simply to frustrate the natural desire of young men to be in style. School is conceived as an institution in which looking good on one’s own terms is outlawed.
The oppressive hair policy is not just about forcing young men to give up one of the pleasures of youth: style an fashion. Racial discrimination is very much at the core of these rules. In an impassioned letter to the editor of The Observer, published on June 22, 2021, attorney-at-law Matthew Hyatt recalled his frustrating experience at school:
“In 2010 I was a victim of this discriminatory practice of being asked to cut my hair just minutes before the start of my Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate mathematics examination at a prominent all-male high school in the Corporate Area. I recall feeling vulnerable, nervous, and desperately trying to retain a variety of equations, while the principal in all his wisdom enquired about my hairstyle.
“A group of us were marched to the principal’s office and given strict orders to have our hair groomed as soon as possible, lest we could not sit our external exams. I was most distraught as I watched some of my Caucasian, Indian, and Chinese peers with long, straight hair begin their exams without any enquiries.”
More than a decade later, nothing much has changed. Allowing schools the option to determine their own hair policy is the root of the problem. The old-fashioned people who administer schools and run school boards tend to be very inflexible. They rarely question rules and they stubbornly believe that ‘tradition’ must be preserved at all costs. They do not seem to understand that their racist hair policies are designed to perpetuate self-hatred. And they resent young people who challenge them to justify their actions.
SINGLE HAIR POLICY
It is not enough for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information to keep declaring that students must not be excluded from school because of their hairstyle. Much more needs to be done. The ministry must establish a single hair policy for all government-funded schools in Jamaica. School administrators and school boards will resist what they will see as high-handedness on the part of the ministry. But they cannot be allowed to continue upholding arbitrary, racist rules about hair. They need to be disciplined. Just as they punish students for breaking hair rules!
Our Minister of Education, the Hon Fayval Williams, could take lessons from her counterpart in Anguilla, the Hon Dee-Ann Kentish-Rogers who is well positioned to head the Ministry of Social Development, Education & Library. The mega-ministry comprises Health, Education, Youth & Culture, Sports, Social Development, Probation, Prisons, Library Services and Health Protection. Kentish-Rogers is a barrister and an athlete who competed in the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the 2012 CARIFTA games. She is also the first black woman to hold the title Miss Universe Great Britain, which she won in 2018.
In an April 2022 Facebook post, Kentish-Rogers made this admission:
“When I was first elected to office a young man turned to me and asked, how can the Head of the Ministry of Education wear locs, but the students in the system can’t?” That penetrating question led to a revision of the National Code of Discipline and Dress.
Kentish-Rogers elaborated in a public broadcast: “This change in policy will allow students to wear their afros, locs, braids, and other protective hairstyles associated with their racial and cultural identity. One of the most important changes to note is that locs will be generally accepted for both boys and girls. There will no longer be a process of applying to the Department of Education to state that they are being worn for religious reasons.”
Anguilla is a British Overseas Territory, unlike Jamaica that is supposedly independent. Yet, their minister of education fully understands that “the acceptance of our racial and cultural uniqueness means stepping away from ingrained colonial perspectives about the appropriateness of black hair in schools and professional settings”. When will we catch up? All the talk of republicanism means absolutely nothing if we cannot come to terms with the fundamental issue of claiming our natural hair.