Claude’s Comments: Education Ministry is allowing discrimination against African hair

One does not have to be a legal expert to recognise that hair-shaming, such as reported in the St Stephen’s College incident, is a violation of our Constitution—‘the supreme law of Trinidad and Tobago’ (Article 2). I want to submit further that the incident is also a clear violation of the Equal Opportunity Act (2000) (EOC).

Individual rights are enshrined in Articles 4 and 5 of the Constitution. Article 4 affirms that no one can be discriminated against on the basis of ‘race, origin, colour, religion or sex’—a complex mix of biological, cultural and anthropological terms, none of which is further defined in the Constitution.

Photo: Education Minister Anthony Garcia (left) talks to students from Morvant Laventille Secondary.

Article 4 (b) guarantees ‘the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law’ (emphasis added); article 4 (i) protects the ‘freedom of thought and expression’. There is no doubt that hairstyles fall within the scope of artistic ‘thought and expression’.

In my opinion, the criminal aspect of African hair-shaming should have been relegated to the dustbin of history following the proclamation of the EOA. Belatedly though it might have been, this Act fulfilled the promise of equal ‘protection of the law’ in Article 4 of the Constitution. Sadly, rather than seek judicial relief under the Act, victims of hair-shaming mostly prefer to take refuge in silent surrender or social media.

The Act’s full title is: “An Act to prohibit certain kinds of discrimination, to promote equality of opportunity between persons of different status, to establish an Equal Opportunity Commission and an Equal Opportunity Tribunal and for matters connected therewith.”

The glossary to the Act explains that ‘status’ includes ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’. It explains that ‘ethnicity in relation to a group of people means the origin, characteristics, classification and distinctive cultural or aesthetic traditions of that group of people’.

Photo: St Stephen’s College Student Kalika Morton was allegedly disciplined in school for her Bantu knots hairstyle.

It goes without saying that cranial hair is one of the most distinctive characteristics of race or its equally controversial term, ethnicity.

Article 15 of the Act is specific to the rights of students. It categorically prohibits all educational institutions from discriminating against a student by refusing admission or restricting access to facilities and services offered by the institution. It further prohibits the institution from ‘subjecting the student to any other detriment’.

There is no doubt that hair-shaming is a profound ‘detriment’ that has the potential to affect a student in multiple ways.

Ironically, despite guarantees of protection in the Constitution as well as in the EOA, school administrators apparently defer to the Education Act and the National School Code of Conduct (2009) (NSCC) to justify subtle forms of racial discrimination under the guise of instilling ‘discipline’ and appropriate ‘grooming’ in students.

Historically, discipline is central to formal education, regardless of the type of school. It is for that reason that certain academic subjects are actually called disciplines.

Photo: A St Mary’s College student congratulates forward Devon Charles after their 1-0 win over St Anthony’s College in the Coca Cola North Zone Intercol final at the Hasely Crawford Stadium on 21 November 2017.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

‘Discipline’, however, is also at the heart of hair-shaming of African students, as African hairstyles could be deemed subversive to the rules of proper ‘grooming’, ‘deportment’ and ‘tidiness’. All four terms were coded mantras in the arsenal of racial discourse deployed mainly by imperialist missionaries in colonial schools and churches.

In the Caribbean Commonwealth, codes of conduct complement the respective Education Acts. By examining these regulatory tools, one can more easily understand how school administrators can easily blur the lines between instilling discipline in students and engaging in racial discrimination against them.

For example, under the subheading ‘Student Responsibilities’, the St Lucia Education Act (1999) states that every student in a public school is compelled (a) ‘to observe the code of conduct and other rules and policies of the Ministry and of the school’; (e) ‘to observe standards approved by the Chief Education Officer or the principal as the case may be, with respect to: (i) cleanliness and tidiness of the person; (ii) general deportment; (iii) attire’.

This Article is replicated in Montserrat’s Education Act (2008), Article 16; Anguilla Education Act, 2011, Clause 107; St Kitts-Nevis Education Act, 2005, Article 17 and the Commonwealth of Dominica Education Act 1997, Clause 17.

Photo: A girl of African ethnicity plays with her white doll.

By referring to the two [of five] ‘responsibilities’ above, the school may subject a student to ‘standards’ of ‘discipline’ informed by racist thought and practice but which have been the bedrock of colonialist education on both sides of the Atlantic. Until recently, these standards were enforced by physical violence against students.

The Education Act of Trinidad and Tobago absolutely prohibits discrimination in all cases of admission of students to a public or assisted school (Article 7). However, the Act also confirms that ‘Principals of schools shall be responsible for the day-to-day management of their school including (…) the discipline of the school’ (Article 27 d).

It could be argued that the Act confers arbitrary powers on principals to implement ‘discipline’, according to their own interpretation or the interpretation of their respective Boards. To get a sense of the limits of a principal’s authority, one must study the NSCC.

Article 44 (1) of the Education Act confers on principals the right to suspend any pupil ‘whose attendance at school is likely for any serious cause to have detrimental effect upon the other pupils’. While such suspension could be for legitimate health concerns—a child, for example, ‘with a contagious disease’—a principal may also invoke Article 27 (d) and suspend a child for ‘gross indiscipline’, such as the wearing of dreadlocks or Bantu knots.

Photo: Education Minister Anthony Garcia.

At the same time, Article 15 of the Act puts special powers of management in the hands of Boards of Assisted Schools, such as St Stephen’s College.

Invariably, these Board Schools are the same as ‘prestige schools’. Thus, the Education Act legitimises a greater exercise of authoritarianism by principals of Assisted Schools.

Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read Part One as historian Dr Claudius Fergus presents a historical, cultural and legislative perspective on African textured hair. The third part of Dr Fergus’ column will be published on Saturday 4 January.

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About Claudius Fergus

Claudius Fergus
Claudius Fergus is a retired Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at UWI’s St Augustine Campus who specialises in the abolition of British colonial slavery and its transatlantic slave trade. His major work on the subject is Revolutionary Emancipation: Slavery and Abolitionism in the British West Indies (2013). He has other extensive publications in peer-reviewed journals and edited books.

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