In 1999, Clivia Jones went to school with a modest cornrow hairstyle only to be told by the Corpus Christi principal to fix her hair or stay home. This story came to mind when I read of two recent incidents. The first was of a Port of Spain schoolteacher spewing racist and classist statements. The second was of the student at the south Anglican school who complained about being harassed for wearing her natural hair in Bantu knots, twists and cornrows.
From my own experience in the education system as a student, educator and researcher, issues of discrimination, abuse and damaging approaches to differences are deeply entrenched. This is so despite some dedicated and fair-minded teachers and administrators attempting to do better.
Taxpayer Dollars Fund Racism and Classism in Religious Schools
Religious-based schools, controlled by private religious boards and often largely funded through taxpayers’ money, are particularly guilty of unconstitutional policies, while simultaneously projecting themselves as bastions of morality, respectability and progress. As much as these schools are widely perceived as ‘prestigious’, they have the worst record of racism, classism and religious biases. This is particularly problematic as these denominational schools are funded by taxpayers’ dollars, yet their policies have not been inclusive and receptive to all citizens.
It is, however, not just denominational schools that are guilty of biases, as government public schools are not immune. Social scientists such as Ramesh Deosaran, Nasser Mustapha and Ishmel Baksh have long provided empirical evidence of the deep social stratification and inequalities that are present in the education system. Ramesh Deosaran’s most recent book, Inequality, Crime & Education in Trinidad and Tobago: Removing the Masks, should be required reading for all teachers and administrators.
Analysis of the students enrolled by religious schools through the 20% yearly allocated intake under the Concordat Agreement reveals deep racial and class inequalities. Though somewhat dated, a 1994 study by the Centre for Ethnic Studies (CES) titled A Study of the Secondary School Population in Trinidad and Tobago: Placement Patterns and Practices found that students of African descent were selected for Concordat placements in much lower proportions to their population. Indian students were selected in proportion to their ratio, while other groups were selected in higher proportions.
The study also found that with respect to socio-economic background, 80% of the children selected for Concordat-based placement came from upper- and middle-class backgrounds, while only 15% came from lower socio-economic backgrounds. These percentages for middle- and upper-income groups were greater in proportion than the spread of those groups in the general school population, while lower-income groups were underrepresented.
T&T’s Hair Attitudes and Policies are Anti-African
From the response of the education ministry, one could easily leave with the impression that the hair incident was an isolated issue. However, many aspects of how people have been socialised reflect the view that kinky hair is inferior, and so natural hairstyles that emphasize kinkiness then are more likely to be barred, frowned upon or deemed inappropriate. Preferences, compliments and desirability are often influenced by the straightness of hair, and so it is not unusual for persons to deliberately choose mates so that children would be born with straighter textures of hair.
Policies that bar natural kinky hairstyles (including Afros, dreadlocks and Bantu knots) are deeply racist and anti-African. So are perceptions that such hairstyles are inappropriate for school or work. Unfortunately, like many aspects of our plantation society, these biases have been institutionalised and normalised so much that, while pervasive, they remain invisible.
Our society was founded through European domination and as such, there has never been an appreciation for human differences. Instead, persons have been rewarded or sanctioned based on their proximity to Europeans standards of beauty and appropriateness. School policies and perceptions of appropriateness have not been neutral, considerate of differences or apart from these dominant social ideas.
It’s no wonder that the CES study of the education system concluded: “When all the pieces are put together one can say that the system (primary and secondary) is not user-friendly to young people of African descent, especially females, nor to the poor, nor to those from non-nuclear families.”
No Rastas Allowed!
Even when children pass for certain schools, entry is not automatically guaranteed, as shown in the 2004 case of the Rastafarian girl Kalifa Logan who was barred from St Charles High School because her dreadlock hairstyle was deemed to be a ‘disciplinary problem’. It is no surprise that Sat Maharaj supported the barring of the Kalifa Logan from the school she had passed for. It is certainly not only Christian religious schools that have infringed on the human rights of the nation’s children. There is a whole hidden history of the discrimination that Rastafarians have faced in the education system ranging from straight out debarring to how such students are treated once they have entered a particular school.
Rastafarian children have been subjected to hostility, verbal and emotional abuse, and pressure to cut their hair or change their worldview. Rastafarians, viewed through the lens of cultural ignorance, colonial biases and contempt, are not seen as worthy of being listened to or of having measures to ensure that the education system accommodates them properly. They don’t even have regular space in mainstream media to share with the public what it means to be a Rastafarian.
Anton Dick, then principal of St Mary’s College, was even quoted in the newspapers as being unrelenting when it came to barring Rastafarian boys from the college. Even when dreadlock hairstyles are allowed in some schools, it is usually strictly for reasons of Rastafarian identity. Jamaican columnist Bert Samuels recently wrote that stipulations that allow dreadlock hairstyles only for religious reasons were oppressive.
Social Biases Impact Student Success
The higher a student’s socioeconomic status, the more likely she/he will do well in the mainstream education system. This is not because poorer students are inherently less smart, or because well-off students are inherently smarter, but rather because of how class biases and a society set up in the interests of the elite contribute to educational achievement (and life chances).
When we also consider the impact of other biases, we can understand the challenges of diverse groups within the education system. Even though education is seen as a great equaliser and an important part of creating a meritocracy, if the structures and policies of the education system are themselves not meritocratic, then it will be limited in its ability to improve the society.
Students are more likely to experience privilege in the education system the higher their socio-economic class, the closer they are to European skin tones, features, hairstyles and dominant religious concepts. This is what people generally prefer. Teachers and school administrators are not automatically above the stereotyping, privilege, biases and the societal ignorance of diverse racial and cultural groups in Trinidad and Tobago. They, like all other citizens, have been socialised into a plantation society with clear distinctions as to who and what is considered superior and inferior.
Acts of bias and discrimination are not always perpetrated deliberately or consciously, rather, people act out how they have been conditioned. The psychologist Sigmund Freud talks about the unconscious, which can be used to explain that even with good intentions, parents, teachers, administrators, and even students can act out dominant social biases and not be aware of it or the implications.
All teachers, employers, supervisors and parents should be aware of the ‘Pygmalion effect’, also called the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, which explains that people do better when viewed and treated as if they are capable of success. If a teacher views a student as being full of potential and intelligence, this will affect how he will treat and teach that student, as compared to if he views the student as troublesome or lacking in potential.
What then are the consequences of some children being viewed as either bright, worthy and capable because of the bodies and backgrounds they inhabit, while other students are viewed as criminal, unworthy, and less than intelligent because of the bodies and background they inhabit? What are the consequences of entire schools and communities being viewed as inferior? How do social biases affect whether children are seen as having the potential to succeed vs potential to fail? In other words, how do common social biases affect how much parents, teachers and administrators believe in specific children ahead of other children? And how does this affect how children are taught, how they are treated and how they are pushed (or not) to succeed?
I have browsed the Ministry of Education’s Draft Education Policy Paper 2017-2022, and it is deeply inadequate in addressing some of the deeper issues in the education system, especially as it pays lip-service to the issue of educational inequalities.
There is a crisis in the education system and there is an urgent need for a public inquiry, or better yet a series of social scientific studies, into different aspects of the education system. Among the objectives should be to understand the experiences of diverse groups of students, especially around issues of inequality.
For example, why does there seem to be continued use of corporal punishment in school despite it being barred? The focus should also be on making evidence-based recommendations to especially improve the experience of students who have historically been marginalised in and outside the education system.
The experience of teachers is also important as delays in administrative teacher issues, teacher salaries and the need for more evolved teacher development programmes must be considered if we are to move from ineffective educational models towards empowering and collaborative ones.
Teachers have some very real challenges and it is unfair to expect them to magically be able to stem the results of complex patterns of inequality and poor socialisation. Having a realistic understanding of what is happening in the education system and the sources of such is thus in the best interest of both teachers and students.
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the 1970s Black Power uprising. Yet, almost 50 years since, our nation has not learned the lessons from the efforts of those who challenged the colonial nature of society. They then focus on natural hairstyles, entrepreneurship, people-based governance and addressing experiences of racism, inequalities, African-Indian tensions, and class discrimination are as relevant today as they were then.
We are also halfway through the UN Decade of People of African Descent (sidenote: why hasn’t the government moved to support activities for this?), and yet there are still publicly funded schools today that outright bar Rastafarian children, and who have other policies that are abusive to children who wear natural, kinky African hairstyles.