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**

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Dont try to fit into a mould. Be yourself.

While I drove around Barbados this morning a number of thoughts went through my mind about the many words that had been written and said recently about the hot "hair debate" in Barbados and I am not really planning to add to that specifically. My mind goes to what the discussion showed about some of the thinking that prevails in Barbados, and perhaps elsewhere in the Caribbean. I then saw the point that is the title of this post in an article in The Advocate--it relates to many things, including peer pressures in life style and choices of occupation. It seems apt for my thoughts. That article ends by saying that "The Lord knew what he was doing when he created this world with all the variety in it...Don't smother your individuality as it defines who you really are."

I sensed in the recent debate more than a touch of uneasiness about individuality. That somehow that could not be managed. Need to get back in line; stay with the fold; don't stray too far from the tried and trusted line. To make that point stronger, add to it some absurd comparisons and try to scare the bejeebers out of everyone by making it seem that the walls are going to fall around our ears, if we let this instance pass. The fact that this kind of argumentation came from a respected educator is another issue.

When I think of what it will take to make our region all we want it to be, I think about what our individuality has had to do with our successes. It's never easy. For example, we play and enjoy cricket differently than its originators and from other parts of the world and we celebrate that. We felt uncomfortable with the recent Cricket World Cup when our style did not seem to be taken into account in many aspects of the tournament's organization. In a word, the fun was killed for us. We wanted our noise; we wanted our food; we wanted our cheering. We don't enjoy cricket sitting still and occassionally saying "Good shot." We don't want cucumber and water cress sandwiches, but fried chicken and rice, peas, macaroni, etc. When we dance at our festivals we love to gyrate and get close and wave our arms; we don't dance around a maypole or walk around the room stiffly twirling and keeping our partners at a distance.

I also sensed in the initial arguments what to me was more than a little confusion about what some things mean. What is an institution and what is its role in setting standards for more than those who are active in it? If I have a child in a school, I look for those in it to set standards appropriate for good education and general upbringing of school children. But there would be limits to what I expect school to set standards on beyond that, e.g., political views. But beyond secondary school, I would expect institutions of higher learning (colleges, university) to deal with its students differently. In the latter, we need to address the fact that we have people who are near to being adults or actually there, and that changes the kind of regulations we will generally set for them. We also need to ensure that the rules we have are not arbitrary and are clear from the start and applied consistently.

Look at another institution, Parliament. This is where the country's elected and selected representatives make new laws to govern our lives and take decisions about raising and spending money for the "good of the people", and debate issues that will shape the state's direction of the country. But does it have a bigger role? What should it be doing in guiding what else goes on in our lives? In democracies, parliaments often get into trouble when they try to set limits on truly private behavour. Parliament does not run businesses, but should set a framework within which industries can operate. If businesses go beyond what is deemed acceptable then we set up other institutions to deal with that, through the legal system, for example. Parliament is an institution to which very few will be exposed and even fewer aspire to be exposed. It's not clear that it is really in touch with how a society develops so why should we give it a role in setting standards except for itself and how it passes legislation? Do I really want to look at politicians as my models of good behaviour? What do Parliament's activities tell us about our nation and what might they tell the rest of the world about us? If we look at the British Parliament, do we think that the country is full of buffoons just because Parliament's traditions are more than a little strange? We see a great example of a certain kind of debating tradition but I am not sure what else Parliament is doing for standard setting beyond its actual legislative role. Because a certain proportion of politicians are rude to each other or are shown to be wanton with public money or downright corrupt does that set the standard for me? I think not. Because most politicians prefer to dress in a certain way does that, or should that, affect my choices? Do I really worry about how they comport themselves within those hallowed walls? If I do, I will trust them to deal with it all amongst themselves. If I have issues with individual politicians I will seek to get rid of them through the ballot box.

Do most of us really feel the need for institutional standard setters? I thought, and had often seen, that sort of desire really only prevalent in centralized/state controlled/socialist economies and countries. At its worst, in China, with everyone in a "Mao" suit. Maybe at heart that is what is underlying the thinking of some in Barbados: a hankering for centralized control.

What also concerned me was a sense that some people here do not have a clear idea of who or what they are. The world is constantly evolving and international contact puts us face to face with many different practices and styles. However, somethings remain constant. Most people of African origin or with traces of such origins have tight curly hair, when it grows. Our options and choices for our hair are not the same as for Caucasians. However, over the years, black people have tended to follow Caucasian hair fashions--looser, straighter, glossier hair--and felt or were made to feel that we had "achieved" something if we got closer to that. When there was slavery in the US or Caribbean there was no choice for black people in matters of personal style. Naturally, after being transported from Africa, slaves could not retain much of that continent's style and adopted Europe's tastes. Since slavery's abolition black people in the US and Caribbean have tended to look down on those of African origin who did something close to African in terms of dress or more natural with their hair--letting it grow (Afro), braiding, or modifications of that (e.g., dreadlocks). We used that as a negative label. Black women rebelled some years ago when preferring colours for cosmetics more in keeping with brown skin tones. Do we want dark haired, brown skinned women to try to look like just like fair haired, pale skinned women?

Since independence was given to countries in Africa and the Caribbean those "natives" who held onto European traditions have tended to do so with a sense of assurance that they were in line with how most people thought and felt. In the Caribbean most people do not have a clear idea of what it means to be truly African; we are now part of the western hemispehere and have adopted its styles. But many are experimenting or trying to find out what it means to be different.

In most African countries, when it comes to comportment, national costume is still very common, especially in the west and north of the continent (look at dignatories and many others from say Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco). Yes, you will also see them wearing western-style suits especially for certain kinds of meetings on foreign soil. But Africa's climate and lifestyle dictate different fashions: try going through the desert in a suit or even T-shirt and shorts. There is a good reason why many people dress the way they do such as available materials (e.g., cotton, grasses), or climate (sand storms or rains). Many high ranking French-speaking African officials studied in France and "evolved" so now love to dress at the height of European business styles. Show me the Armani. But there is no fixed rule. Guinea's president never wore anything but national costume, except when he dressed in his military uniform. He had a strict rule that none of his ministers should meet him wearing anything other than national costume. He also had a strict rule about speaking one of his country's native languages rather than French as left by the former colonial masters. But if you have lost your traditions what can you do?

In my teens I had my hair relaxed for a few months (I felt odd at first and then regretted it but grinned and bore it till it grew out; but there's no denying the episode and it's well remembered in photos of me playing football). During my time at university and after I began working in the central bank I wore an Afro; I also had a beard. As I matured more, I preferred my hair short, and as an active athlete until my early 40s, I rationalized this partly as needing to have something easy to tend. I was sweating and bathing so often that I felt I could get washed away. My sense of who I was changed during all those years. I don't feel ashamed of any of these hairstyles; they represented me at those times. All along, however, I never had any doubts about my abilities, and as far as I could see, hear, or sense no one ever saw my hair as reflecting anything other than the top of my body. My brain functioned very well all the time. My income and responsibilities rose despite the changes of hair style. My morals rarely varied with my hairstyles: I always knew right from wrong. I was harassed by the police in England irrespective of my hairstyle, but because of that which I could not change, my skin colour. Ironically, I lived in England at a time when people with short hair became feared, when "skinheads" came to symbolize a strand of right wing and racist groups and those black people who liked to wear their hair short had to think about what they might be symbolizing.

The kind of arguments that were flying around recently also reflected some loose approaches to gender bias: certain styles are alright on girls but not on boys. Reasons? None that I can think of other than "labelling". We seem to need gender labels, too. But more on that another time.

We also seem to need people in boxes. I want to see the region of my birth as a place where we show that we have more than a smattering of self confidence. I want us to show that we have a load of common sense. By dint of our locations and the size of our countries, we are very parochial that is true but most of us are not stupid. The US is huge but the views of its people are also very parochial.

Some people put forward arguments that in my assessment don't stand up to even the weakest of tests for logic or good reasoning, but reflect a set of opinions seeking to be credible due to the "position" of the presenter. Enough of that already. I want my children (aged 23, 20 and 4), living here or in the UK or US, studying or working, to be able to think clearly for themselves about important issues. I want them to make a contribution to development by what they do not how they look. One has braids and looks wonderful. One has the frizzies and is equally wonderful. One has hair that is loose and is equally wonderful. They all have great brains, which they seek to keep neat and tidy under whatever head covering they choose at the moment.

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