Gilkes: Post-colonial or decolonial? How tired racist standards persist in T&T

Wha allyuh vex with St Stephen’s College for? I give them right, full marks for their stance.

Was it backward and discriminatory? Yeah. Was it disrespectful and, frankly, based on old racist ideas of beauty, comportment and respectability? Of course, duh. They no doubt would justify it on the grounds of what is an ‘appropriate’ appearance for a young girlthe same way Colfire justified their prejudicial move based on what is ‘professional’.

And I find that should be the end of that. Because since we superficially changed flags in 1962, what serious, in-depth, deconstructive conversations have taken place at a national level, or in secondary/tertiary institutions, regarding the legacy and lingering manifestations of racist ideas and stereotypes?

Photo: St Stephen’s College Student’s Bantu knot hairstyle.

This country came into being as an outpost and an export processing zone for Europe and functioned as Uncle Sam’s backyard in later years. They both justified their parasitic relationship using ethnocentric (ok, Eurocentric … ok, white) notions of entitlement. ‘We’ were only allowed partway into the world they created once we displayed their ways, their dress codes (suit in a humid, tropical environment … hilarious) and their grooming standards, as if we didn’t have our own.

To what extent has there been a confrontation, a deconstruction, of ‘whiteness’ in dress, grooming, mannerisms, child-rearing, conflict resolution or divine concepts in this society to get over any of that? Let me answer for you: not a whole lot.

If we had, the Country Club incident of 1969 would have been the last time such discriminatory practices would have happened. There would have been no tragic incident at Club Coconuts (or had it happened, at least Brad Boyce would still be behind bars); and no foolishness at Colfire or Naparima College. Restaurants in Couva or Ariapita Avenue—sorry, lemme use the sophisticated (white) pronunciation: ‘Ahvuhnue’—would not dare have one dress code for you and not enforce it when the patron is white and foreign.

What we would have had by now would most likely be a society somewhat less dysfunctional, more harmonious and with a better understanding of who we are, what ideas of development best suit us, and what is the best direction to take to get there. By now UWI would have established the department of Caribbean philosophy it still has not gotten around to doing as yet.

The difference between post-colonial and decolonial have come back to taunt us yet again with this St Stephen’s College arseness. A decolonial society or institution would have recognised that this country is rich with African cultural retentions; many African hairstyles have deeper meanings that indicate a person’s lineage or marital status. The decolonial institution would then have guided the young girl—who no doubt is at that formative stage of cultivating an identity—a whole lot better than what transpired.

Embed from Getty Images

What we got instead was the post-colonial approach, because the colonial values, ideas of beauty and (un)conscious prejudices were retained.

Because let’s be honest here, the reason we eh discussing decoloniality is not only because plenty of allyuh ‘fraid allyuh offend some of the same people whose families go back over one hundred and eighty years (and possibly owned your ancestors).

No. It’s because many of you hold the same prejudicial ideas. Trinbago is an excellent place to study colour-blind racism and black/brown internalisation of white racist ideas.

What happened in St Stephen’s College is only the latest incident to expose the default white (male) settings that remain the benchmark in this society. The pervasiveness of whiteness is so deeply ingrained here that not only is it ‘normalised’, but it is not even thought of as ethnically specific. It’s ‘professional’, it’s ‘universal’, it’s ‘international’.

Not so, Wendy Fitzwilliams? Where Gabriella?

The Euros don’t need to see themselves as a ‘race’, it is their values, their political structures, their patterns of dress that have been universalised. So, they are ‘normal’ while the rest of us are ‘ethnic’ or ‘exotic’.

This was the elephant in the room when the hijab incident at Lakshmi Girls Hindu School came up: if Ms Nakhid was wearing only Western clothes—the normal benchmark for ‘proper’ or ‘professional’ attire—no one was batting an eyelid.

Photo: Former Finance Minister Gerald Yetming.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

Recall too when the late Patrick Manning tried to shame Gerald Yetming for NOT wearing a suit in Parliament. Luckily, Yetming had the mental strength to dismiss that dotishness and point out that since he was in the banking sector, he made it a point to wear clothing that was more conducive to the region’s climate yet was no less dignified.

Ironically, in the big, macco corporations, these Afro/Indo-Saxon pipsqueaks in Colfire and in Naparima College, and QRC and St Stephens College, where they are indoctrinated, relaxed dress codes are practically standard now as they seek to woo the younger, more tech-savvy people who are clearly showing their contempt for the suit and the image it conveys.

And as British MP Dianne Abbot pointed out in a discussion on Black women’s hair, the most backward, negative attitudes towards natural hair and African hairstyles come from mostly West Indians, not whites.

Such irony. The doyens of St Stephens and Naps and Colfire are the upholders of standards created to demean them. A young girl was shamed on the basis of ‘scientific’ ideas that by the late 19th century, in serious academic discourses, associated dark-skin with diseases such as syphilis—which was connected to violent madness.

Women’s hair, since the rise of patriarchy in Mesopotamia circa 2600 BCE, was connected to disorder, chaos, unruliness and destruction. Women were veiled in Ancient Greece centuries before Islam existed. It is mostly from them that in the Christian and Jewish traditions, girls and women are expected to cover their hair in church—old patriarchal superstitions thought that women’s hair controlled storms.

Photo: Mirror mirror…

By the 19th century, there was a special obsession over Black women and their hair. There is no separating the policing of African hair from the policing of African bodies, especially women’s bodies. Eurocentric patriarchy is obsessed with this (with the Arabs running a close second).

Coming from regions and cultures where women held tremendous power and influence in ways white women almost never had, African women’s mannerisms AND their skin AND their ‘unruly’ hair instantly disqualified the Athenian/Victorian ideas of decorum from being applied to them. These hypocritical ideas and customs regarding how a ‘good’ woman was expected to look and behave came from a cultural mindset obsessed with control and absolute deference to (white) male authority.

So, whether it’s the visible signs that our independence was a hollow farce—such as the suit in a tropical climate, or prohibitions on sleeveless dresses and blouses in government buildings, or the retention of colonial institutions, laws and education schemes—we are our own worst enemies here.

No doubt some of you go vex, but remind me again how many Haitian and Dominican refugees it have here again? Thought so. And how many people pulled up the Commissioner of Police when he referred to a particular demographic as cockroaches and fleas? Just like shithole countries, these are manufactured and the creators all wear suits… so who’s the real parasite?

Photo: (From left) St Lucia Prime Minister Allen Chastanet, Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina, US President Donald Trump, US First Lady Melania Trump, Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness, Haiti President Jovenel Moise and Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis pose before the meeting at Mar-A-Lago on 22 March 2019.
(Copyright Jose A Iglesias/Miami Herald)

No doubt someone is going to point out that there are other parts of this incident that we haven’t heard. Most likely. But that’s missing the point.

Whatever the backstory, using old racist policing of African hair is not going to be part of any solution. This is just the latest incident, there will bound to be others. Maybe someday, when somebody get a good, stiff lawsuit so severe down to dey unborn chirren go be needing lawyer, some of allyuh go understand what is not done.

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