“At issue is the widespread, pernicious and fundamentally racist belief that the hair and hairstyles of African people are not suitable for formal settings and are intrinsically messy, unkempt, unhygienic and even disruptive. The insidious nature of this deeply ingrained idea encapsulated in the popular phrase ‘bad hair’ guarantees that every conversation about grooming hair ends up being about race.
“[…] The broader culture of racial discrimination around African hair is impacting young boys and girls at a critical stage in their development disrupting their education and crippling their self-esteem, before most of them even begin to understand the political and historical forces that shape the social constructs that they will have to navigate in order to succeed in this world.”
The following column on the issue of African hair and hairstyles was submitted to Wired868 by Shabaka Kambon, Director of the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project (CRFP):
- Among the coloured people I have often heard it said that the social grades are very exacting, and are based on the amount of coloured blood in them. I have noticed one very curious thing—it seems to be the hair, and not the colour, that is the real social bar! Most women who have crinkly hair will spend all they possess to get it straightened out at a beauty parlour in POS. (The amusing Diary of a Scottish Physician in Trinidad in the 1920s)
- Take the kinks out of your mind not your hair. (The Right Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey in the 1920s)
The CRFP takes issue with Minister Franklin Khan’s assertion, reported in the Trinidad Express on 12 November 2019, that the matter of discrimination against 15-year-old Kalika Morton by school officials at St Stephen’s College over a two-year period for wearing natural hairstyles has been resolved. In the context of the information we have received, this conclusion seems baseless.
Consider for a minute that up to today, the Ministry of Education has not had the courtesy to communicate directly with Ms Leiselle Morton-Taylor about her daughter’s case. The widow of the late West Indies and national cricketer Runako Morton has had to learn about developments along with the general public, by reading the newspapers.
This callous disregard is not just disturbing, it has created a disadvantageous environment for Morton Taylor and everyone in this society with natural African hair. Now, an official of St Stephen’s College has apparently taken the opportunity to issue her with a pre-action protocol letter threatening legal action.
The only comfort Ms Morton Taylor can take from all this is that she is not alone, since no other individual or group who has championed this issue has been treated any differently by Ministry officials.
On 9th October, the Emancipation Support Committee (ESCTT) wrote to Minister Anthony Garcia calling for the establishment of a task force to look into the issue across all schools as ‘a matter of urgency’ stating: “we know for a fact that what happened at St [Stephens] was not an isolated incident.” Up to today, the ESCTT, like the Morton Taylor family, has not received a reply.
Officials have steadfastly snubbed the whole spectrum of Afro-Trinidadian civil society groups that have called for action and ignored interventions from high profile citizens of African descent like Facebook’s Global Chief Diversity Officer, Maxine Williams, who said that her natural hair had been an issue in this society ‘for as long as I could remember’.
At issue is the widespread, pernicious and fundamentally racist belief that the hair and hairstyles of African people are not suitable for formal settings and are intrinsically messy, unkempt, unhygienic and even disruptive.
The insidious nature of this deeply ingrained idea encapsulated in the popular phrase ‘bad hair’ guarantees that every conversation about grooming hair ends up being about race.
In this environment predicated on colonial-era values, generic guidelines which promote ‘sensitivity to diversity’ do not prevent teachers and principals from making judgements that violate the civil rights of children with afro-textured hair.
A cursory look at the data shows that this approach does not protect African children anywhere in the world even on the continent of Africa itself where newly crowned Ms Universe, South African Zozibini Tunzi, forgave those who advised her to wear a weave for the 2019 pageant. Tunzi said they were just repeating what, society had ‘engraved in our minds for such a long time’, before adding ‘beauty does not look one certain way’.
Here in the Caribbean there have been recent high-profile incidents in Barbados (2015, 2016), the Bahamas (2016), Jamaica (2018, 2019) and Belize (2018, 2019); and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
In all cases, officials are more concerned with upholding hegemonic standards grounded in white supremacy than protecting our children from either the damage to their psyche or their bodies caused by the epidemic of chemical relaxers, which have been linked in recent scientific studies with uterine fibroids, cancer and early hair loss among other things.
The broader culture of racial discrimination around African hair is impacting young boys and girls at a critical stage in their development disrupting their education and crippling their self-esteem, before most of them even begin to understand the political and historical forces that shape the social constructs that they will have to navigate in order to succeed in this world.
Take the example of the young mother who I interviewed on radio recently who found her eight-year-old son at home in front of the mirror one morning attempting to slick down his hair, less than one centimetre long, with water and grease.
When she asked the boy who was previously so fond of his little curls what he was doing he replied that his teacher told him that hair like his needed a lot of product or it needed to be kept short in order to be considered tidy. The teacher also threatened to cut his playtime if he did not do something about his hair.
Fighting to hold back tears she recalled how her son told her that he wished he had straight hair because the kids with straight hair in his class came to school with their hair long and were not subject to the same harassment by the teacher. This mother went into the school with the boy’s father. They succeeded in convincing the teacher to stop harassing their son but could not get her to agree to apply the same standards to other children in her care.
By regulating hairstyles that are suitable for African hair specifically or vastly more popular among African descendent people than any other group, as part of a supposedly neutral dress code, schools are getting away with violating the civil rights of our children without any repercussions.
Those wondering what can be done need look no further than California which passed the Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act in July, becoming the first State in the US to have legislation to protect ‘black hair and hairstyles such as locks, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, and Afros’.
In August, New York City followed with similar legislation carrying serious penalties up to US$250,000 under one law and unlimited damages under another. Efforts are now underway to have CROWN legislation passed not just at the city and state level but at the federal level as well.
We must remember that every inch of cultural space that non-white people occupy in the Caribbean is space they have had to fight for. Things we take for granted today like eating doubles and roti with our hands, buljol and bake, calypso, soca chutney and steelpan, and the acceptance of African and Indian traditional and modern attire to name a few.
Somehow in all of this, we dropped the ball on something as fundamental as African hair. This is not a frivolous matter and things must change, because the policies and cultures of behaviour that govern what happens to African hair in the 21st century have serious implications for mental and physical health, educational access, and long-term success.
The Ministry of Education cannot claim to be ignorant of these facts and must now reconsider its current approach and seek a suitable outcome that will make a definable difference for our society. Anything less would be a gross and deliberate dereliction of duty.