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By Wayne Campbell

Black hair continues to be policed– and these days those at the forefront of the discrimination have a new face.  

Sadly, negative opinions against Black hair these days are not only being expressed by our former European colonizers– but by those who have Black skin. 

We have all read about Black students being barred from school due to what is deemed inappropriate hairstyles. In most instances male students are the ones whose rights to an education have been suspended due to the overarching and misplaced power of school administrators.  

Too many of us have allowed power and prestige to cloud our judgment. We tend to bring our personal biases and prejudices to hair. Undoubtedly, each educational institution has the right to establish its own rules and accompanying sanctions. Rules must be relevant to the cultural space in which we live and operate. Even in instances where parents or guardians agree to these rules there must be room to challenge rules which make no sense. Clearly, the discourse is not about students adding color to their hair or designs to the hairstyle. No student should be barred from school because of a simple haircut– especially after two years of learning loss due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.  

The hairstyles of other ethnic minority groups are seldom cause for concern– if any at all– by school administrators. Many of us are uncomfortable with ourselves. Our hair continues to be a great source of discontent hence the processing or straightening of the Black hair has been widely accepted. Here we must brace ourselves for more unnecessary interruptions in the education system. 

Power and social capital

The work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who was primarily concerned with the dynamics of power in society, resonates each time the issue of students being barred from school due to their hairstyle surfaces.  Bourdieu’s work on the sociology of culture continues to be highly influential, including his theories of social stratification that deals with status and power. Bourdieu was concerned with the nature of culture, how it is reproduced and transformed, how it connects to social stratification and the reproduction and exercise of power. The education system is one avenue through which the issues of social stratification and the reproduction and exercise of power and value system occurs. 

Bourdieu’s conceptualization of social capital is grounded in theories of social reproduction and symbolic power. Bourdieu saw social capital as a property of the individual, rather than the collective, derived primarily from one’s social position and status. Social capital enables a person to exert power on the group or individual who mobilizes the resources. Unfortunately, a majority of our people still have unequal access to institutional resources based on social class, gender, and political connection. 

As a society, the messages we send to our students– directly or indirectly– will be instrumental in shaping the country in which we live. It cannot be that after 60 years of political independence we are still discriminating against our Black brothers and sisters using relics of a colonial past regarding hair. We should all be on a path of reigniting a nation for greatness instead of creating more divisions in the society.  

The rights of the child   

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is a universally agreed-upon set of non-negotiable standards and obligations, adopted in 1989. These basic standards, also called human rights, set minimum entitlements and freedoms that should be respected by governments. They are founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, regardless of race, color, gender, language, religion, opinions, origins, wealth, birth status or ability and therefore apply to every human being, everywhere. 

The convention comprises 54 articles. The four core principles of the convention are: non-discrimination; devotion to the best interest of the child; the right to life, survival and development and respect for the views of the child. 

Access to education  

Every child has the right to an education. Primary education should be free. Secondary and higher education should be available to every child. Children should be encouraged to go to school to the highest level possible. Discipline in schools should respect children’s rights and never use violence.

Aims of education 

A child’s education should help them fully develop their personalities, talents and abilities. It should teach them to understand their own rights, and to respect other people’s rights, cultures and differences. It should help them to live peacefully and protect the environment.

Minority culture, language and religion 

Children have the right to use their own language, culture and religion even if these are not shared by most people in the country where they live.

There is The Child Care and Protection Act of 2004. 

Duty to secure education of child

Every person having the custody, charge or care of a child between the ages of four and 16 years shall take such steps as are necessary to ensure that the child is enrolled in, and attends, school. 

The issue of hair discrimination becomes more troubling when the educational institution in question is funded by the tax payers. 

As a resident of Jamaica, I often turn to Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms for guidance on these issues. The charter states that as citizens we have the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of being male or female; race, place or origin, class, color, religion and political opinion. Additionally, the charter gives the right to attend public educational institutions at the pre-primary and primary levels to every child who is a citizen of Jamaica.

Obviously, with rights there are responsibilities and as such the parent and or guardian has a responsibility to ensure that the child is properly groomed for school. However, it cannot be that we continue to prevent students from an education by applying a skewed interpretation in order to discriminate against Afro inspired hairstyles.  

UN Sustainable Development Goals

Another body of principles to which Jamaica is a signatory to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals or Global Goals are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” The SDGs were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by 2030.  The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals– in particular the fourth goal– speaks to inclusive and equitable quality education for all. 

Practicality of Rules

School rules cannot be made in ignorance, ignoring the wider contextual national and international conventions which protect the rights of the child. 

Hair discrimination can become burdensome not only for the individual whose hair is being policed but also for school administrators who should have more pressing activities to attend to, such as to ensure that quality teaching and learning is taking place.  

Our hair is part of our identity. Many of us can trace our ancestry to the continent of Africa. Africa is the cradle of civilization and it’s rather sad that in 2022, 184 years after the abolition of slavery that we are having this conversation in Jamaica surrounding appropriate hairstyles. We should not be made to feel lesser-than based on our hairstyle. The Right Excellent Marcus Garvey said it best: “the Black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness.”

Those who challenge the status quo are sometimes misconstrued as rebels. However, those who are quick to apply such labels clearly need to revisit their history and come to terms with their subconscious self as they continue to uphold the ideals of the colonizers.  

Affirmation of Self

During the period of enslavement the hair of Black women was seen as a form of sexual arousal for the White slave masters. 

Our hair is synonymous with spiritual power and a deep sense of cultural awakening. Our hair is a very powerful medium of affirmation. This affirmation of self via one’s hair was brought across loud and clear for me during a recent interaction. 

During a work related activity, a client’s teenage son was hesitant to come on camera for an online assessment. However, after the teenager saw my twisted hair, he told his mother that he was no longer anxious about appearing with his plaited hair.  

Regrettably, too many of our students lack affirmation, which is needed for them to realize their goals. Unfortunately, we continue to utilize the education system as a means of social stratification and discrimination.  

In spite of the investments and strides made in the sector, Jamaica’s education system continues to reproduce unequal outcomes.  The hidden curriculum continues to reinforce the divisive social classes in the society. Undoubtedly, many hidden curricular matters, which negatively impact the education system, are as a result of assumptions. 

Those in authority must be mindful of the unintended values and perspective which students often learn.  Unquestionably, our educational institutions have transformed from those noble spaces where pedagogical skills are perpetually on display. The main focus for educators should be to ensure that our children are in school and remain accounted for. This mandate is especially critical for boys who have numerous unconventional pathways available to them outside of education.  

As Jamaica moves ahead in this competitive Fourth Industrial Revolution a repositioning of ideas surrounding education must be at the helm of any discussion regarding enhancing educational outcomes of our students.        

In the words of Maya Angelou, “prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”    

Wayne Campbell is a Kingston, Jamaica- based educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. He can be reached waykam@yahoo.com.

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