Caroline Cooper | The Hair Police Teaches Self-Hate | Remark

It’s so predictable. Stubborn administrators religiously insist that students who do not follow hairdressing rules should be kept out of school. This is the usual outcry against exclusion. Things calm down. And before you know it, there is another incident. Triggers vary.

Sometimes it’s the irrational fear of lice hiding in dreadlocks. Or, it is the hair that is too high. Students are required to comply with regulations that don’t always take into account how their hair naturally grows.

Take, for example, black hair. In its natural state, as it grows from the root, it stretches upwards, not downwards. And it can reach heights. In the 1960s, when the Black Power movement flourished in the United States and spread across the Caribbean, towering afros were the order of the day. They are making a comeback. Then, if the black hair is allowed to lock, the weight of the hair eventually causes it to fall out. And it can reach great lengths.

It is completely arbitrary for school administrators to decide that “proper” grooming means that a young man’s hair should be no more than two inches high. What is the rationale for this decision? The dark hair police come across as a classic case of mental slavery. Authoritarian school administrators are trapped in the overseer role. It seems the purpose of these random hair rules is simply to frustrate young men’s natural desire to be fashionable. The school is designed as an institution in which it is forbidden to look good on one’s own terms.

RACIAL DISCRIMINATION

The oppressive hair policy is not just about forcing young men to give up one of the pleasures of youth: style and fashion. Racial discrimination is at the heart of these rules. In an impassioned letter to the editor of The Observerposted on June 22, 2021, attorney Matthew Hyatt recalled his frustrating experience at school:

“In 2010, I was a victim of this discriminatory practice of having my hair cut minutes before the start of my Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate math exam at a prominent male-only high school in the corporate sector. I remember feeling vulnerable, nervous, and desperately trying to hold back a variety of equations, while the director, in all his wisdom, inquired about my hairstyle.

“A group of us were taken to the principal’s office and given strict orders to have our hair done as soon as possible for fear of not being able to pass our external examinations. I was very distraught when I saw some of my Caucasian, Indian and Chinese peers with long straight hair starting their exams without any inquiries.

More than a decade later, not much has changed. Allowing schools to determine their own hair policy is the root of the problem. Elders who administer schools and run school boards tend to be very inflexible. They rarely question the rules and stubbornly believe that “tradition” must be preserved at all costs. They don’t 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.

UNIQUE HAIR POLICY

It is not enough for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information to continue to state that students should not be expelled from school because of their hairstyle. There is still a lot to do. The ministry should establish a single capillary policy for all government-funded schools in Jamaica. School administrators and school boards will resist what they see as authoritarianism on the part of the ministry. But they cannot be allowed to continue to maintain arbitrary and racist hair rules. They must be disciplined. Just like they punish students for breaking hair rules!

Our Minister of Education, the Honorable Fayval Williams, could take lessons from his counterpart in Anguilla, the Honorable Dee-Ann Kentish-Rogers, who is well placed to lead the Department of Social Development, Education and the Library. The mega-ministry includes health, education, youth and culture, sports, social development, probation, prisons, library services and health protection. Kentish-Rogers is a lawyer and athlete who competed at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the 2012 CARIFTA Games. She is also the first black woman to hold the title of 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, a young man turned to me and asked me, how can the head of the Ministry of Education wear locs, but the students in the system don’t can’t?” This penetrating question led to a revision of the National Code of Discipline and Dress Code.

Kentish-Rogers explained on a public broadcast, “This policy change will allow students to wear their afros, locs, braids and other protective hairstyles associated with their racial and cultural identity. One of the biggest changes to note is that locs will generally be accepted for both boys and girls. There will no longer be a process for applying to the Ministry of Education to declare that they are worn for religious reasons.

Anguilla is a British Overseas Territory, unlike Jamaica which is supposed to be independent. Yet their Education Minister fully understands that “accepting our racial and cultural uniqueness means moving away from entrenched colonial perspectives on the relevance of black hair in schools and professional settings.” When will we catch up? All the rhetoric about republicanism means absolutely nothing if we cannot come to terms with the fundamental issue of claiming our natural hair.

– Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a professor of English language and literature and a specialist in culture and development. Send your comments to [email protected] and [email protected]