My Facebook page is filled with discussions about the experience of the young ladies whose head mistress rejected their hairstyles as inappropriate for school. As outraged as this makes everyone, including myself, it is neither new nor surprising. For anyone who dares to do something not previously explored in their established societal norm, these are the steps taken to bring the perpetrators back into conformity; ban the action or remind of existing restrictions even if the action has no malice or negative consequences. This has played out in relation to all aspects of black culture and appearance for centuries and this ‘ban on inappropriate or mature natural hairstyles in school’ is another example, regardless of how minor one might see this individual situation.
This is not the first time the discussion of how black people wear their hair in ‘formal’ settings has caused furore between masses and management. When I was in secondary school many moons ago, the black young men were forced to wear their hair in very short cuts, as this was considered “neat” while the young men of other races were allowed to grow their hair longer than what was established as a neat length for boys. Why this is, one can consider for yourself.
The young ladies were also strictly guarded in relation to their hair. A young lady in my year at school and I had the twists at that time. I don’t know if it was a new hairstyle but it certainly caused some discomfort among the teachers and principal of the school. I was told that it was an inappropriate hairstyle for school. I did not change my hairstyle and neither did she to my recollection and I think I did pretty well intellectually. Any failings I had in math, I can guarantee you had nothing to do with my hair but my general apathy toward the subject, which predated the hairstyle by at least 7 years. But I digress.
The absurdity of all this is, the bad reputation of natural hair does not improve once one leaves school. I remember reading a story in the Nation Newspaper, a few years ago, about a set of women who could not in the ‘80s get jobs or were disciplined if they did have employment due to their choice of wearing braids. This predated my own experience and provided real difficulty to women who were qualified for their positions but disregarded on the basis of a hairstyle. The criteria of a black person’s appearance once again determined their ability to gain work and success in a society that was majority black. I am sure that I could provide you with tons more examples, personally, of friends and in history of people discriminated on either officially or unofficially due to their hairstyle or other facets of their appearance but you would be reading forever.
The excuse or reasoning often provided is the leader is bound to enforce the rules of the establishment that govern appearance in the school setting. However, these rules, as implied above, can be relaxed for everyone but the black students at school or employees at work – black people generally. My argument is if you have to enforce the rules, do so equally for everyone. Therefore, if the boy’s hair length can’t be more than an inch, let that apply across all races and hair textures, otherwise don’t enforce it at all. If young women can’t wear their hair open, let that be the case for all types of hair; natural, relaxed, weave and for all races. But to argue that you have to enforce the rules as leader while your black students see you only applying it to them is unfair, in my opinion.
Additionally, as a leader, I believe you have some influence in guiding the discussion generally in the Ministry of Education about what can be considered “neat and tidy” or even appropriate. There has to be some critical thinking at all levels of society from management even down to the individual otherwise, our community will continue to enforce rules that were meant to exclude us from participating fully in society. Therefore, we should have the courage to think for ourselves (as we often argue young people can’t do) and consider whether there is need to relax or remove practices that are demeaning to individuals of any race, hair texture or any other distinguishing factor.
The step of a truly independent nation of people who have a variety of hair textures and complexions and personalities would be to stop trying to control said hair, complexions and personalities to conform with past manipulative rules. I believe that the exploration of one’s hair and fashion tastes is a step in self-determination. It is a historical practice since the days of slavery to deny black people every right, including that of determining their own paths and goals. Like many other demeaning practices of the time, that we have carried into today, we deny ourselves and our children the right to determine who we/they are by restricting exploration of simple (to me) aspects of themselves such as hair, fashion etc. This practice keeps us in place as servile people to whomever is calling the shots – even today I doubt it is us – because we have not taken on the role of self-determination or creating a path for ourselves based on who we have determined ourselves to be.
There is the argument of appropriate time and place for the hair do. Supporters of the restriction say it is appropriate for adults and/or casual settings. We have to teach our children the time and place to wear their hair appropriately. My question – is the hair of a black woman – any woman – only appropriate when controlled? What is “control”? And how can we teach our children to love what comes out of their scalp naturally if we continue to tell them that it is not good enough, it is adult and that it is somehow scandalous?
Am I personally against relaxers, weaves or braids? No I am not. I believe it is everyone’s right to choose what style they want with their hair including these young women who clearly know what they want. So I won’t draw the “they let people wear weaves etc blah blah” argument. What I will ask – is the hair truly distracting from studies or is it the discussion about the hair?
What proponents of time and place arguments may not understand is that these “standards” that we consider universal were designed to keep us in place by feeling less about our natural selves. By “us” I mean the non-members of the elite. If we feel less than ourselves and that we can be better and achieve elite status, by conforming to these “standards”, then money is to be made in hair, fashion and other industries benefitting, largely, already established members of the elite. Feel less about yourself before you know yourself is the message I feel many are sent when they hear these rules of appropriateness such as a hair and other aesthetic aspects of themselves.
Anyway, to end my ramble I state this simply: I believe all hair is created equal, that they are endowed along with their wearers certain unalienable rights, that among these are acceptance, creativity and the pursuit of self-determination.
The Nation Newspaper article I referenced: http://www.nationnews.com/nationnews/news/62241/wear-braids