Natural Hair Ban at Barbados School

Borrowed images
willed our skins pale
muffled our laughter
lowered our voices
let out our hems
dekinked our hair
denied our sex in gym tunics and bloomers
harnessed our voices to madrigals
and genteel airs
yoked our minds to declensions in Latin
and the language of Shakespeare

Told us nothing about our selves
There was nothing at all

From Colonial Girls’ School by Olive Senior

Even a dog’s hair must be groomed (facebook comment).

We black people using this black roots as an excuse to walk about the people place like you have no owner or sense and quite often looking quite stupid all in the name of trying to get back to your roots. Why we black people feel that unless you looking untidy and foolish you acting white (facebook comment).

Look how quick them could come up with a petition about a few knotty children that won’t comb their picky head (facebook comment).

locks for me have been a kind of anti-beauty. A deliberate subversion of an idea of what hair should look like for a black woman (Tillah Willah).

The Afro-Trinidadian women in my office tell me that hair is important, having combed hair is important and that this is something black girls learn early, because of the general disparagement of things African and the overwhelming pressure to bleach, straighten, press or cover natural black hair. Having to present as acceptable, decent and civilised is a given because its alternative is to fall to a racist stereotype (Gabrielle Hosein).

It has been reported that the Principal of one of Barbados’ elite secondary schools has banned black girls with hard hair/nappy hair/kinky hair/natural hair from wearing their hair loose i.e. from wearing their hair in the way that it grows out of their heads.  She has declined to speak to the media so we have no idea what her reason for this ban is.  The principal has since indicated that while she recognises the beauty of natural hair, all students must be “neat and tidy” when in school uniform.

Some supporters of the ban have claimed that the “twist out” hairstyle is womanish, distracting, inappropriate for school and that it is just one specific style that is banned and not natural hair itself, (but it’s a policy directed exclusively at black natural hair!) Notions of neatness and tidiness are not at all neutral. When it comes to hair, they are often extremely exclusionary with black women and girls expected to engage in massive amounts of grooming just to appear presentable. Not even babies and toddlers are exempt from these standards.

Times change. Some of the natural hairstyles that may now be grudgingly considered appropriate in a professional setting represent a hard-won acceptance.  Women have been fired for wearing braids in Barbados. Rastafari have been persecuted across the region with multiple attempts to exclude rastafari boys and girls from school because of their hair. The same way we learnt to accept the “Revlon locs” and the twisted updos, we’ll have to get used to twist outs, wash-and-go, and loose natural hairstyles.

Supporters of the school policy have also claimed that a principal’s powers are absolute. They see the principal as the sole decision-maker and source of authority and argue that students should follow the rules without question.  They see this as necessary preparation and discipline needed for the world of work. They see public disagreement with the hair policy as an attempt to discredit the principal because she is a woman leading an elite former boys’ school. They have argued that natural hair can be smelly and unkempt using terms like “bag fuzz”, “rats’ nest” and “matted” to describe loose natural hair. They have argued that natural hair requires special rules.

Long, slurpy stupse.

Elite secondary schools in the region share a history of colonialism, racism, sexism, classism and anti-blackness.

Sometimes teachers think that they are doing students a favour when they socialize them into white supremacy, self-hate and respectability.  They believe they are preparing them for the world of work. Preparing them for survival in a globalised world that is anti-black. Making somebody out of them despite their blackness or working class roots or countrified accent. These teachers are in need of consciousness-raising. They need to learn better so that they can do better.

When I was at secondary school I distinctly remember our principal asking all the girls with natural hair to stay behind after assembly for a talk on tidiness and appropriate hairstyles. This is gendered and racialised policing of black girls’ bodies that is usually classist as well. It also communicates just who legitimately is supposed to occupy these elite spaces.

Young-gifted-and-black women wearing their hair as it grows out of their heads exist in all kinds of leadership roles where their intelligence and expertise are acknowledged and rewarded. So aside from how arbitrary, racist, sexist and anti-black these rules are, aside from how emotionally and spiritually damaging this policing of black girls’ bodies is, there is really NO case to be made for socializing black girls into anti-blackness. Black women and girls can and do bring our full selves, our flyness and our talents to all the spaces that we occupy, create and help to shape. Our blackness, our bodies, our sexualities do not need to be mitigated, tamed or policed. We do not need to be infantilized or socialized into white supremacy or black middle-class respectability just because a powerful few have not yet realized that it’s 2015.

It’s 2015. And it’s majority-black Barbados.  If black girls can’t wear their hair as it grows out of their heads at this very moment and in this very space, then when and where?

This post is about the larger issues, not just the policies at one school. To read more about that school’s decision visit Loop Barbados. They have also done a follow-up article.

***

Sign the petition calling for the principal to remove the ban against natural hair. Tell her just how saddened and disappointed we are by her decision.  Tell her too that we know she is learning just like all of us. Ask her to open her heart to what we are trying to teach.

The majority of comments I’ve read have expressed disapproval of the ban on the hairstyle. However, many of the people who claim to embrace natural hair only do so if it is processed i.e. plaited, twisted, loced, in an updo, heavily styled etc. What is considered acceptable natural hair is hair which is recently styled or re-loced and which does not appear fuzzy. “Acceptable natural” is not at all a rejection of European standards of what hair looks like but a negotiation with those standards— a move closer to mixed-race curliness as ideal and attenuated blackness as acceptable through conformity to notions of neatness, tidiness and professionalism. So we’re left with the paradox that large numbers of women in Barbados wear their hair natural but this widespread acceptance of natural hair does not extend to kinky, loose hairstyles which are deemed dirty, knotty, wild and unkempt.

***

This week in St. Lucia a boy was sent home from school because of his hair cut (pictured below). His father asked:

What is wrong with such a short cropped head of hair? We black and mixed black people must shave our heads bald to be accepted?

***

A word on terminology: some have expressed disapproval with my use of the terms “hard” and “nappy” and have expressed a preference for the term “curly”. In Barbados we talk about “hard hair” to described tightly coiled black hair. Typically hard is not meant as a compliment or a neutral descriptor. What positive or neutral terms do we historically have to describe black hair? Nonetheless, hard is a term I use to describe my own hair. Hard has some positive slang connotations like fly or cool. I’m reclaiming hard as a positive descriptor of black, natural dopeness! I know nappy as a term mostly used in the US, again often in a negative way, but I think the natural hair movement over there has done a lot to reclaim that term (“happy to be nappy”). The kind of black hair that is coming under intense scrutiny is not considered “curly” in the cultural context of Barbados. So even though the hair may be tightly curled or coiled, to use the term curly to describe it would be culturally incorrect. There is also the classification system, invented in the US, which grades hair from 1a to 4c.  It’s not a system I use. Black people have been styling their hair for millenia without a need for these classifications. Given the racist history of anthropometry, I don’t see why black women need another racialised classification system to separate us into As and Cs. The term kinky, which means closely or tightly curled, was suggested to me and I’ve edited the post to reflect that.

***

Learn more about the politics of black hair in the Caribbean at the following links:

Got My Hair Un-did

As a mother of a half-African baby girl, each day I discover how little I know about black hair. 

The Black Hair Conundrum

St. Lucian Boy Kicked Out of Class Over Hairstyle

Young Barbadian men excluded from Polytechnic because of locs 

Good Hair in St. Vincent and the Grenadines

It’s Just Hair

I’m a twenty-something overachieving chick with dreadlocks and a predilection for wearing Converse to work

Tales of a Caribbean Natural

Tales of a Caribbean Natural: Secondary School Edition

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Have you ever blogged about hair politics in the region? Please share your links with us? Are you a black woman with natural hair? Please tell us what terms you use to describe your hair? Have you come across any other Bajan blogs talking about this issue? Please share them with us. Do you disagree with us completely? Tell us in the comments!

image source: http://www.loopbarbados.com

Crossings

We need to make solidarity communities with the sources of our power, not our victimisation.  M. Jacqui Alexander, Barbados, 2013.

#dearCaribbean contributor, Gabrielle Hosein,  wrote that being an Indian and a feminist in the region is a “risky location” i.e a site of multiple negotiations with “Indianness”, “feminism”, Caribbean belonging and Caribbean feminisms. One member of a thriving Caribbean online feminist community appeared to question just how risky a location this could possibly be given the growing perception that Indo-Caribbean women’s voices were dominating Caribbean feminism. Dominance.  A weighty word, especially for a feminist to throw around.

One brief comment that served to question the legitimacy of Indo-Caribbean feminisms.  I am writing this to understand why some black Caribbean feminists feel threatened by and resentful of Indo-Caribbean women’s exploration of “Indianness” and their claims to both “Caribbean” and “feminism”.  I am not alone in perceiving a need to meditate on these questions. Another black feminist friend messaged me privately to express surprise at the responses to Gabrielle’s article, especially in a space where she expected that we should know better.*  These issues, of course, go beyond a facebook comment. I have also had a student ask, in response to a discussion on the CRGS Special Issue on Indo-Caribbean feminisms why I was not hosting one on black Caribbean feminisms as well. I attended a graduate seminar where a student questioned the equation of Caribbeanness with blackness and as I resisted going on the defensive I understood exactly what she meant when she challenged us to avoid thinking ourselves into tiny boxes.

African-American feminist scholar Jennifer C. Nash questions the construction of black women as the prototypical intersectional subject even as she recognises that intersectionality is a key contribution of Black Feminist Thought developed out of an analysis of black women’s lives:

In painting black women, for example, as wholly oppressed and marginalized, intersectional theory can not attend to variations within black women’s experiences that afford some black women greater privilege, autonomy, and freedom. In troubling the monolithism of ‘black womanhood’, intersectionality could be strategically disloyal to dominant conceptions of black women as ‘the mules of the world’, exploding the tendency of radical projects to elide critical differences within ostensibly marginalized subject positions.

Her analysis resonated with me as I questioned what I saw, in the conversation that unfolded,  as an invocation of  black womanhood as an always already the-most-oppressed-status deployed in this instance to dismiss the experiences of others and retreat from accountability for such a dismissal.  Black women emerge as innocent.

Both Rosanne Kanhai and Rhoda Reddock have very accessible pieces in the Caribbean Review of Gender Studies which historicize and contextualize Caribbean feminist attempts to work across difference in Trinidad. Andaiye of Red Thread talks extensively about their work across race/ethnicity in Guyana in an engaging interview with Kamala Kempadoo. As Gabrielle Hosein noted in the facebook exchange, there are parallels between the male marginalisation discourse which claims that women are illegitimately taking over spaces that rightfully belong to men and the framing of Indo-Caribbean feminism as “dominant”, hypervisible and ultimately usurping both Caribbeanness and feminism.

Beverley Bain argues that Indo-Caribbean feminisms open up spaces for black women too:

A challenge to discourses that have historically positioned Indo-Caribbean women as passive thereby juxtaposing black woman as its aggressive opposite. I think it opens up a space for us as black Caribbean feminists to begin a dialogue around slavery and indentureship and how women in these processes experienced particular forms of violence but resisted, exercised autonomy and how that was usurped under patriarchy, religion and heteronormativity.

Shona Jackson’s Creole Indigeneity demonstrates the ways in which the claims to belonging in the Caribbean of both persons of African and Indian descent are often complicit with Indigenous erasure in the region.  For me, Shona’s observations here provide an opening for black Caribbean feminists to disabuse ourselves of claims to innocence.  It is an invitation to move beyond historically sedimented racialized polarizations.  There are lessons there for all Caribbean feminists. Shona’s work indicates another area where consciousness-raising is necessary, another opportunity to think ourselves out of the tiny boxes that not only stifle us but also oppress others.

Another contributor to what became a rather heated online discussion mentioned, “the dishonest way that we have often dealt with underlying feelings.” This post is an invitation to deal with those underlying feelings in an honest manner.

An opportunity to acknowledge missed understandings.

An invitation to listen again.

As Jacqui Alexander notes, crossings are not undertaken all at once and once and for all.  There are multiple crossings we make as feminists away from and back to defensiveness, across intersecting lines of race, ethnicity, class, privilege, dis/ability, sexuality.  It is important that we commit to make those crossings as many times as we need to and that our communities are there to make those crossings with us. Time and time again.

***

Giving thanks for the sisters who were willing to engage with me even as they disagreed with what i said, how i said it and feared their own words were misunderstood. Thank for making that crossing.

* There were also others who felt the way the post was framed was neutral, represented a matter-of-fact stating that other people perceived Indo-Caribbean feminist voices to be dominant and that the way the post was framed had no bearing on the way in which the discussion unfolded.  

No thanks, Banks!

So Banks Beer, which markets itself as the national beer of Barbados, recently launched an ad with the tag line, “My Brown Ting, My Banks.  Brown never looked so tasty.”
Yup, a racist, sexist colonial throwback which draws on a long history of the sexualisation, commodification and thingification of the brown woman’s body. Very, very original and imaginative, Banks.
Banks joins a long list of other Caribbean advertisers who drawn on worn-out racialised and sexualized images of women to sell anything from alcohol to cellphones.

Vidyaratha Kissoon of Guyana has publicly denounced the objectification of women’s bodies in advertising, especially light of the persistently high levels of violence against women in the region:

The use of women’s bodies in advertising and marketing in Guyana has increased in proportion to the intense levels of violence that many women and girls face. Around the world, many advocates against violence campaign against the objectification of women in the media.

When we wrote about the Banks ad on our facebook page, one reader responded that we were focusing on non-issues to the exclusion of other more important ones, that for that reason no one takes feminists seriously and that alcohol advertising must use sexualized and racialised images of parts of women’s bodies because their target audience is men:

rrrriiiiiggghttt, when you all are done you will turn alcohol ads into what? milk ads? these products are mainly marketed at MEN hence the sexy images, instead of flustering over a beer commercial why not campaign for real issues affecting women, such as the right to choose and abortion rights.
This is why women’s rights movements are now viewed as nuisance groups.

This perception of feminists as “nuisances” is as old as the sexist, racialised images Caribbean marketers trade in. So too is the old trick of accusing us of failing to understand what the real issues are and of being selective in acknowledging our activism.

Another reader had this to say:
this frankly sad but strange logic is more common than not from your average Caribbean woman. A function of how much out popular culture of hypersexualising not just thoughts, but songs, slang, our festivals like Carnival and Chutney fetes in T&T…Its really disturbing to read someone say its aimed at men so must be OK. Where’s the subtlety? Nobody’s saying wear a sack but whatever happened to commercials where companies never felt the need to tell us that brown never looked so tasty.

Her comment highlights the fact that since these racialised, sexist images are EVERYWHERE they have become normalized.
Well, a few flustered nuisances will be doing what we can to highlight to contextualize and historicize these images. Join us! CODE RED has started its own campaign asking our readers and members to send us sexist ads from across the Caribbean. You can email us too at redforgender [at] gmail [dot] com.

Response to “I’m Afraid of Black Men”

For many years following my friend’s incident, the mere thought of a black man close to me made me nervous. I didn’t trust ‘them’. I became one of those old, white ladies who would clutch their pocket books when a black man was within two feet. I wouldn’t go to clubs that were predominantly black for fear of being stabbed, shot or God forbid – spoken to. I wouldn’t listen to Rap and Hip Hop music because that potentially made the wrong statement.  (from I’m Afraid of Black Men via OUTLISH magazine)

Before you read the comment from one CODE RED member below you have to read this article entitled “I’m Afraid of Black Men”.

One of CODE RED’s members responds:

Why is it OK to stereotype black men as unemployable, hyper-sexual criminals? Even as the article is one woman’s opinion it draws on historical discourses about black male hypersexuality and criminality. Some acknowledgement of the larger context within which these racist, sexist tropes about black masculinity originate and circulate is therefore necessary. Some acknowledgement of the material consequences for black masculinity of the intersection of anti-black racism and sexism is also necessary (i.e the black men like Emmett Till who paid for anti-black racism and sexism with their lives).

Yes, black people from the Caribbean often wish to draw an analytical separation between themselves and African-Americans but rather than repeat the stereotypes (with which we are all already quite familiar) why not produce a more reflexive, insightful analysis? Perhaps because the writer’s sheer elitism and ignorance won’t let her.

The kumbaya moment at the end really does nothing to resolve the anti-black and anti-male drivel that is the majority of the article.

I applaud OUTLISH magazine for usually keeping it fun and fresh with its awesome team that delivers on time week after week! Thankfully this article is not representative of the majority of your content.

Join us on facebook and tell us what you think.  Just one woman’s story to which she is entitled?