There seems to be a conspiracy in some sections of the society to thwart all efforts by the majority of Jamaicans to acknowledge and reaffirm their blackness especially as this relates to how they choose to express and represent their Afro- centricity. The debate surrounding the appropriateness of the Afro hairstyle in our schools is very much timely, more so, in light of Miss Jamaica Universe Davina Bennett’s phenomenal success at the recently held Miss Universe competition. Miss Bennett mesmerized the global audience sporting her Afro hairstyle to place third. Interestingly, there were many in the society and the Diaspora who are still of the opinion that had she processed her hair she would have won the title. To what extent should the length and texture of one’s hair or hairstyle hinder one from receiving an education? Jamaica’s population is predominantly black. However, the society continues to be haunted by our colonial past in which our forefathers endured hundreds of years of enslavement. Sadly, the present generation still suffers from a post-slavery syndrome, in which we belittle all that is associated with Africa and craves a Eurocentric lifestyle which we have been indoctrinated to accept as being superior. We have accepted new forms of neo-colonialism which continue to keep our minds in shackles. All children regardless of race, religion and gender have the right to an education. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is a human rights treaty which sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children. Article 28 of the CRC, speaks to the Right to Education; in which Parties recognize the right of the child to education and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular: make primary education compulsory and free to all. Additionally, Parties should encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, make them available and accessible to every child and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in case of need. Article 29 of the CRC addresses the Goals of Education whereby Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to: the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential. It clearly means that no child can or should be barred from school simply because of a hairstyle which some may argue is an extension of one’s personality or associated with one’s religion. Many of us who are old enough will recall those days in which children of the Rastafarian faith had difficulty gaining acceptance to schools due to their dreadlocks. However, we have evolved over time, additionally policies and treaties have been developed to ensure that all children have a right and access to education. Jamaica also benefits from other ethnic groups. Are we going to ban boys for example who are of an Indian descent if they chose to grow their hair and gather it in one? Similarly, are we going to have a comprehensive ban on hair extensions? What if a student is having chemotherapy for cancer or going through some other medical condition? Should we allow a student to feel lesser than because of a grooming policy which might not take into account cultural and historical relevance? The education of our children should be paramount not only to make them better citizens but for sustainable development.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #4 speaks to ensuring inclusive and quality education for all and the promotion of lifelong learning. It bares thought that obtaining a quality education is the foundation to improving people’s lives and sustainable development. Furthermore, Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, (Constitutional Amendment) Act 2011 in sub-section K (ii) states “The Right of every child who is a citizen of Jamaica, to publicly funded tuition in a public educational institution at the pre-primary and primary level. It is very evident that those who were instrumental in creating Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights were aware of the importance of children accessing an education.
The Education Ministry recently stated that a grooming policy was being developed to provide guidelines not only on the appropriateness of hairstyles for school, but also on one’s overall deportment. However, the aspect of the proposed grooming policy which has generated most debate is whether or not Afro is an appropriate hairstyle for the purpose of school.
History of the Afro Hairstyle
It is widely believed that at the end of the 1950’s, a significant number of young black female dancers and jazz singers broke with traditional black cultural norms and wore unstraigthened hair. The hairstyle at the time had no name and was referred to close-cropped. Over the years the close-cropped hairstyle developed into a large round shape, worn by both sexes and had to be groomed with a wide-toothed comb known as the Afro pick. It can be argued that the Afro-hairstyle which gained widespread acceptance and popularity especially by African Americans in the 1960’s and 1970’s served as a repudiation of Euro-centric beauty standards.
While the society can accept that colouring of one’s hair can and does serve as a possible distraction in a classroom setting, certainly there is nothing unacceptable for a student to have Afro hairstyle for school. However, what say you of the Mohawk and Kid and Play hairstyles? I now share the views of two barbers on the subject matter. Oneil who has more than fifteen (15) years barbering experience said, “I disagree with those styles; you are going to school not a party”, he stated, “a low fade or all in one low”. Mr. Byfield is of the opinion that neither hairstyle is appropriate for school. “I don’t think neither of them should be worn in school because it’s a grown up hair cut that takes a lot of maintaining and expense to keep up with for them to be focusing on a hairstyle and not their school work”. He added, “because of the era and the fad that is wearing right now and most importantly the parents are not so hard on disciplining like back in the days when it comes to their kids, because frankly speaking most of them are kids themselves”. He ended by suggesting that in every business or organization there should be a grooming code to identify what is appropriate for work.
A Consultative Approach
Notwithstanding this there comes a sense of responsibility for all those who benefit from these rights. As a result there must be a broad based consultative approach to garner the opinions from all stakeholders before a final grooming policy is issued. Additionally, any grooming policy that is put forward must be gender fair to both sexes, as well as address the issue of skin bleaching. The tendency is for educators and policy makers to place girls under more scrutiny than boys. Boys are allowed to get away with wearing tight khaki pants and shirts, while our girls are compelled to follow the school rules regarding school uniform. One can only hope that any such policy will also speak to educational institutions which are non-government aided. There was a lead story in Thursday’s Gleaner; January 18, 2018 regarding Holy Trinity High School. According to the news report the institution barred students from the campus because of lateness and breaches of the school’s dress code. As a society we have lost our sense of appropriateness. We have failed our youngsters miserably by not passing on the morals which served us well. We are now reaping the effects of our collective abandonment of our responsibility to the youth. The fact is each educational institution is allowed the latitude to make up their own dress code; therefore it is very likely that what is acceptable for one school might not be appropriate for another. This is where the State through the Education Ministry needs to provide leadership. It is also critical that the State put forward an inclusive grooming policy to include independent schools. Unfortunately, in too many instances privately schooled students are not given the same level of protection as students who attend public educational institution. One recalls the incident in September of 2016 at a prominent preparatory school in St. Andrew where a child was denied entry to the school because of his mother’s refusal to cut his hair. The debate which ensued after divided the country and many at the time were of the opinion that the school’s stance on the matter was discriminatory and not in the best interest of the child. No child should be denied an education because of prejudice!
The State has a huge responsibility in ensuring that all the barriers to education for our children are removed. It is not the responsibility of the State to impose layers of various shapes and sizes in preventing access to education of the youth. We must never forget that education is a universal human right afforded to all.
In the words of Monica Millner, “I feel that the kinks, curls, or tight coils in Afro hair is beautiful and unique. No other race on this planet has hair like ours that makes me proud”.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.
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