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**

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Getting to know yourself and losing fear of your own shadow.

Though I have tried hard, Barbados' "hair debate" keeps getting into my head. To me the discussion has nothing to do with culture, or ethnic roots. It has more to do with ability to think through issues and argue about things to see what is form and what is substance. Such a debate also highlights where some people are mentally and where they feel they want to go. Clearly in Barbados there are some who think that a man with cornrows looks outrageous, and to see such a man in a setting where the norm is different has made some very uneasy. There are others, who feel no such unease, or may even see the thing as a positive statement about substance over form. But the debate is really about where the limits of the society sit.

I thought about some speculation I read on another blog recently, about the Governor General sporting dreadlocks; the implication being that this would somehow be bad. I then thought about a range of high level international dignatories and how they presented themselves, and how their countries and the world responded. One of the aspects of the discussion in Barbados that I have enjoyed is how people put up an extreme or point further than the one we we began with and make that the point of comparison. The debate began about braided/plaited hair, but was quickly compared by the original author with women politicians baring their breasts in Parliament (extreme at the very least, in a society where women don't do this much anywhere). How on the mental map do you get those two connected? Braids and dreadlocks are not the same, but muddy the waters nicely. Moving on.

On that speculation about the GG, my mind quickly turned to Japan's recent primie minister, Junchiro Koizumi [pictured in his familiar zany sunglasses],
who was elected to that office in 2001 (aged 59, so no "young rebel"), and stayed till 2006, to become Japan's longest serving PM for 20 years. True, men with long straight hair for those whose hair is usually short and straight do not usually evoke the same sort of sense of outrage as braids or dreadlocks on men with usually tight curly hair. Though I also think that for a range of social and cultural reasons, black people outside of Africa see their hair as more of a social, cultural and political issue.

The BBC wrote about Mr. Koizumi in 2005:"With his flowing hair and striking looks, he was a far more colourful politician than the grey suits Japan's electorate was used to. [T]he public appeared to love Mr Koizumi's dashing maverick image. And the prime minister made the most of it, releasing a CD of his favourite Elvis songs and crooning with US movie idol Tom Cruise." In a nutshell, Japan, known for its very conservative tastes, and with its thousands of years of culture and history, took this "maverick" to heart, and he remained popular. A country humiliated in defeat in the Second World War, rose from the ground and became much stronger in many ways. Japan is still very traditional, now sits high on the list of economic and political powers, and has not fallen into the pit of outcasts after its dance with the "maverick". So what does that say?

Truth is many people who "make it" in public (political and corporate) life around the world take safe paths. Rocking the boat, knowingly or unwittingly is sometimes seen as a way to derail success--if you allow me to mix my metaphors; look at damage limitation in the current US presidential campaigns. A few others move along without too much concern about being anything but themselves, and the substance of what they do is all that matters. Look at Jesse Ventura, the bald-headed, former wrestler and actor, who became Governor of Minnesota, who was unexpectedly elected in 1998--beating Norm Coleman, who as you see standing by the US flag, was very much the norm. But Mr. Ventura went on to gain the highest approval rating of any governor in Minnesota history, with some polls ranking his public approval as high as 73 percent in 1999, and is remembered for his political ups and downs not just his acting and body slamming.

The debate is also a good platform for exposing notions about gender stereotypes: braids for girls alright, braids on boys are not. There is no absolute right or wrong but societies have their furrows (or cornrows) and when there is a movement out of them it's interesting to see who feels stressed and why. Notions of masculinity and feminity are deeply set in a lot of societies and when they are challenged it leads to interesting discussion. I was stunned this week when I was at my daughter's school, looking for a book, and was asked by the sales lady, did I want a "girl's" or "boy's" book. I asked what was the difference. She showed me one with cranes and tractors, for boys, and another with flowers, for girls. I think I lost consciousness then. Wonder why your country does not produce female engineers?

Being wedded to any set of notions makes it hard to move on and see alternatives. What some people love about societies that seem dynamic (and they need not be democracies) is their ability to generate and assimilate change. Japan and China were long criticized for their insularity and social rigidities, and have needed to move out of those ruts to make it in the modern world. The Soviet Union sought to stiffle certains kinds of political change, but after nearly 50 years found it could not hold the limits, and the walls (literally in Berlin) came tumbling down. The USA and many western European countries are often admired for their apparent readiness to accept innovation, and with that goes a certain wider range of tolerance. The Muslim world is now under a barrage of criticism for its seeming narrow-mindeness on a range of social issues and lack of tolerance of other religions. And so on.

To move ahead you have to think the unthinkable and start to do the previously undoable. "To boldly go where no one has gone before", to use that well-known clip from Star Trek. A catholic as president of the USA? A black man as president of the USA? A woman as president of the USA? An openly homosexual man as one of the most powerful politicians in the USA [Barney Franks]? The end to the slave trade? A colony given independence to run itself? And so on. Look around the world and you will see many examples and the countries concerned have not sunk into some pit of international outrage. (Mind you, many Britons argue that their power has waned since the let go of the Empire.)

Women have risen to the top in politics where the norms were very much against such a thing (India, Pakistan), and few would think the countries were kicked off the world map, or thought ridiculous, for that. Once disadvantaged people have become those with advantages (e.g., offsprings of former black slaves being CEOs of major "white"/international corporations). Some of America's internationally-renowned corporations continue to do well and even better under black leadership. Merrill Lynch did alright under its CEO, Stan O'Neal, who departed in late 2007 (pictured, clean shaven). American Express-Time Warner went from strength to strength under the leadership of its black Chairman/CEO, Richard Parsons (pictured here, with beard). Many countries and organizations have moved the position of the acceptable, and included those who were for so long the excluded and done very well, thank you.

People in some small countries, such as Barbados, seem to worry a lot about what the rest of the world might think of them but often seem to forget that they are so small that most people neither know or care. If you are going to make a mark in the world it won't be from staying the same or not standing out in the crowd--why do you think that Rihanna has made a success? By being just like the next singer? If you are frightened to be seen as different you won't change yourself or much of anything. In that sense it's important to know yourself and to not keep being frightened by your own shadow.

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