A recent controversy in Barbados — over hairstyles of all things — is reigniting debate about the link between grooming standards, prestige and race in the Caribbean.
Some female students at Harrison College, one of the most prestigious schools on the island, were reprimanded for sporting hairstyles which were deemed inappropriate for school, to the surprise and outrage of many.
Elva Mary Tudor, a mother of one of the students, expressed her concerns on Facebook:
My daughter's hair style was considered too flamboyant and unsettling for school.
At assembly yesterday the students were told twist outs are not appropriate for school.
She will be 18 in a couple weekes [sic] and over the last 2 years she has been quietly developing her sense of style of which I am
quite proud. She has leaned to a natural look.
She has been subject of negative comments about her hair and has stood her ground. I understand clearly that school must have rules and they must be followed. But I find the negativity towards natural hair sad and backward. We seem to dislike the look of tightly coiled strong hair.
With a few months to go before the end of sixth form, this is not battle I am prepare [sic] to get anxious about. My concern really is for her to concentrate on unit 2 of cape and to proceed to UWI, where hair will no longer be an issue.
Harrison College, which was founded in 1733, is the alma mater of five of Barbados’ seven prime ministers, as well as many other prominent citizens. It was an all-boys school for much of its history before becoming co-ed in 1980. The current principal, Juanita Wade, assumed her post at the beginning of this school year and is the first woman principal in the school's history.
Such controversy is not new to the region. There was a similar incident in Saint Lucia two years ago, when a student at St. Mary's College was prevented from attending classes until he cut his plaits.
Tonya at gender justice blog Code Red argued that such attitudes were colonial holdovers and evidence of self-hate:
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.
There was a hashtag #kolijnatural where alumni of Harrison College (“Kolij” is a colloquial name for the school) showed that their natural hair has not held them back professionally:
One alumnus of Harrison College directly addressed the issue of race and made the point that the college was not always so uptight about natural hair:
I am aware that twist outs were not the only hair style deemed inappropriate for school. However, I do take issue with the principal's comment about members of staff having to ask if the hair was combed or not. In a predominantly black country, you mean we STILL do not know what maintained black hair looks like? That a twist out style can still, by some people, be mistaken for unkempt black hair? Come on man. At best, that speaks to an inter-generational rift of knowledge about black hair care. I'm not even going to talk about what it means “at worst”. […]
Another thing that has interested me as well about this issue, is the amount of shots being taken at the school and alumni. To hear it told, Harrison College is a perpetuator of elitism. It's anti-black. One person went as far as to say the alumni are making an issue out of this because the principal is a woman AND because she's not an alumni. What? I went to HC for 7 years. At least 5 of those I was natural. Girls wore puffs when I was there, and mine was pretty big. I don't recall getting told off about it. When I started plaiting my hair at 12, I never got dragged up about my awkward styling. If my twists and plaits used to look rusty, I never got told about it. I even used to go to school to get my hair plait. My experience is not everyone else's, but it's valid all the same.
Even non-alumni got in on the action:
— Risée (@Zaouri) January 12, 2015
Kim Roberts at Bajan Beauty Blogger argued that people who choose to go natural should be prepared to face some opposition — but still be true to themselves:
If you are a brown body in this world you are not ‘allowed’ to privilege your ‘nappy, hard’ loose hair. You aren’t allowed to say to the world, I like my hair this way, and I find it appropriate in every way.
Go natural anyway! Prepare yourself mentally for these persons. Prepare your words appropriately for these persons. Teach your self to ignore these persons and seek the counsel of your parents as necessary, if you are in the school system.
And do it anyway!