Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Friday, February 22, 2008

Hair we go again

On Thursday, the Nation reported that the deputy principal of Samuel Prescod Jackson Polytechnic (SJJP) had sent home five male students, who had their hair braided.Today's Advocate has an editorial saying that he was right, with a call to "Let discipline be cause to rally" (nicely juxtaposed with an article on Barbados as a land of litter louts). I applaud calls for discipline. However, if it's discipline we are discussing then let's deal with that consistently. Is this being done?

The deputy principal of SJJP, Merton Forde, was reported to have said that "if the students were willing to show they belonged to the Rastafarian sector, they would not be barred" and "We have regulations concerning the type of headdress considered to be unhealthy to students around them [my emphasis]. We expect students to conform to those regulations. The students were told that their dreadlocks would not have been a problem once they are part of the Rastafarian faith..." [Note that the picture of two of the students does not show them with dreadlocks.] According to the report, if the students obtained a letter from a Rastafari organization recognizing them as members then all would be resolved. So the rule is on health grounds, with a possible exception if you "prove" that you have a particular religious persuasion? The Director of the Commission of Pan-African Affairs, Ikael Tafari (pictured alongside), who is part of the Rastafari Movement kicked that ball away and described the SJPP regulation as "backward, discriminatory, ridciulous and a dangerous practice". The Minister of Education, Ronald Jones (no relative of mine), criticized the ban as discriminatory adding that "no child can be excluded from a school as a result of a hairstyle". Note that at least two of the banned students are in their early 20s so would be far from most people's definition of children, anyway.

I'm sorry, it is difficult to talk about discipline if what people are constructing as rules does not make much sense or is poorly thought out, and if it means one rule for some and another rule for others in the same place. It makes no sense to me to have a rule for an institution about hair styles for males on "hygiene grounds", and then to see females wearing the same or similar hair styles. That is confusing and inconsistent and it reflects a biased view about gender. Accepting that is accepting discrimination and there is no logic to it; it's an emotional set of arguments.

Following rules just because they are there is for people who cannot think for themselves. If someone just said "I don't like it" then there would be no problem for me because that is just an opinion; but don't treat us like fools and think that because you say something is a rule that like sheep we are all going to follow it. If as a black person you lived in or had to visit America's south or South Africa during a certain era not so long ago there were many rules that forced you to a very disadvantaged position for no reason other than your colour. When during Apartheid's time Caribbean officials or those from the Indian subcontinent were invited to South Africa and told that they could be "honary whites" so that they would not be bound by the rules of Apartheid, they knew what to think of the rules of that country. No matter how disciplined they were or were told to be they could see through this foolishness. Tell Rosa Parks to be disciplined and get herself to the back of the bus.

So, to turn the matter on its head so to speak, if a boy shaves his head and it's alright in an institutional setting, I would expect no complaints if a girl also shaved her head in the same situation. (There are good hygiene reasons for that, such as to reduce the spread of head lice, and if you have lived in an African country you ould have noticed how little hair children have on their heads.) Whether we like the bald headed look or not is a separate issue. If a boy I know wants to wear a skirt I would advise him against it because it is not the norm and he may be ridiculed for it. But depending on his character and other things, he may ignore my advice and wear it. (Society's stereotyping may mean that he gets shooed away from the men's bathrooms and his protests at being ushered into the ladies bathroom may seem crazed.) He may make a convincing case that he is Scottish and in keeping with tradition what he is wearing is a kilt. In the same way I would be neutral about a girl wearing trousers.

Discipline is just the tip of some iceberg of social norms and it is often invoked to cover a fear of change or the unknown. If you want to abstract from hair, look at what happens in the US because states have the right to have their own laws and regulations that do not adhere to a national code, and may make sense and be accepted in a limited context (the state) but not wider (e.g., the nation). Consider the US's maze of laws on marriages and divorce: think carefully where you are when you say "yes" and "enough already". Drawing from direct experience, a few yards can make a world of difference to financial solvency in or out of a marriage (with a lawyer's field day for prenuptial agreements or divorce settlements).

In the US I last lived in Maryland, not far from the borders with the state of Virginia and the District of Columbia (DC). The traffic rules in each jurisdiction were different. Near my home, as I approached the border between Maryland and DC, the speed limit shifted from 35 miles per hour (mph) to 25 mph so within a short space (about 400 yards) I could be quickly in violation of the speed limit. The DC police lived off this fact and placed a speed trap just inside their border and naturally caught many people speeding, made easier because the stretch of road was downhill heading into DC. Second example. In Virginia (remembering that they drive on the left in the US), it is legal to turn left on a red light from a one way street into another one way street; but this is illegal in Maryland and DC. Consequence? Just after a bridge marking the border between Virginia and DC, near the White House, traffic moves into a one way system. Drivers entering from Virginia routinely try to turn left on red into a one way street and routinely get traffic tickets!

To my mind, the kind of "supportive" arguments I am reading in the newspapers about the hair issue (and some other topics) are not far from accepting a range of discriminatory practices in the name of discipline. Perhaps the fact that I have visited and lived in many parts of the world leads me to feel less threatened by things that do not fit a certain norm in a given place. During my travels I have experienced what may seem unbelieveable. For example, a black man in rural China draws less attention than a white woman with red hair; the black man has black hair and his skin is dark, which is the norm in parts of China, but red hair and pale skin are rarely seen. The world and history go around. Long hair (especially in hot climates); earrings (fashions change); beards and moustaches (universal, but almost obligatory in some places stretching from south central Europe through the Middle East); flowing robes (much of Africa, Middle East), kissing each other on the cheek (Africa, France, Italy, Spain), holding hands (Europe, Africa, Middle East) are all part of long standing and still current male traditions in many parts of the world.

Maybe in keeping with its push up the ladder of economic and social development Barbados will be graced by more international visitors than just those mainly from the UK, Canada and the US, or Bajans will get to see much more of the world. This may help people here see how the country and they stand on a very narrow strand of social behaviour.

No comments: