In what some people are calling a holdover from colonialism, a prestigious 282-year-old Barbadian high school, Harrison College, has banned twistouts. The school’s principal, Juanita Wade, says she opposes the style because it isn’t neat. The decision has sparked national debate in Barbados and other Carribean islands.
The controversy was sparked after Elva Mary Tudor posted a picture of her daughters, both Harrison College students, to her Facebook account along with the following caption;
“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 weeks and over the last two 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.”
The Facebook post quickly went viral with more than 900 likes and 240 shares.
A group of Harrison College alumni penned an open letter to Principal Wade which received 500 signatures in support. In the letter they criticized the school for “the message being sent to young women of African heritage”;
We speak often of modernized curricula at the secondary level, and the need to pay attention not just to academic/technical areas of study, but to the sense of identity that young people develop as students. Part of this identity is of course the history of their country and region, and their place in this history. Not just in the Caribbean but wherever young, Black women live, we are told that our hair is somehow inadequate: it is ‘hard’ or ‘knotty’. It is not straight ‘enough’, although enough for whom or what one cannot be sure. And where we are kindly allowed to wear our hair naturally as it grows from our heads, there are caveats: as long as it is pulled back or braided tight or otherwise tamed. Now let us concede the expectation of a tidy appearance to accompany a school uniform. But there is nothing inherently untidy about a twist-out style. In fact, it helps keep strands of hair in place, where otherwise they may have blown about. It is no different from a simple afro, unless this too is considered too distracting for school. Among our primary concerns is the message being sent to young women of African heritage in this country that their natural selves are of necessity untidy, unsuitable or otherwise inadequate.…
The argument that “students can do whatever they like once they enter the real world, but this is school” also misunderstands the role of formal education and the process of young people’s development. School is the real world. Young people are understanding themselves and their environment, and while becoming who they will be, they also are. They are real, valid human beings with thoughts and ideas to express.
On the other hand, some Barbadians are sympathetic to Principale Wade. Barbadian social commentator Corey Sandiford painted her as a victim in a radical natural hair crusade. Ironically, in his defense of Principal Wade and Harrison College, he pointed to the school’s colonial roots as justification for its ban on natural styles;
As *I* understand it — since *I* like most people commenting on the incident was not in the school hall at the time it occurred -
- Identified SEVERAL student practices (including hairstyles) that were not suitable, according to school rules
- Did not identify any specific students as being culpable for their hairstyles
- Actually highlighted the controversial twist-out style for its beauty, but simply said THAT particular style isn’t considered suitable for school.
- At no time used the words “flamboyant” or “unsettling” to describe the style with reference to the school.
Tell me: What exactly is the problem here ? Are we actually going to behave as though stringent rules are new in our schools ? Or, as though any of our “older secondary schools” have ever remotely presented themselves as being here to promote your afrocentric values in the first place ? Maybe the syllabus has changed since I left Harrison College but while I was there I sure as hell never learned about African history, or anything intrinsically African for that matter.
Harrison College is part of a whole education system that is, itself, a mirror image of the school system that existed in Britain — when Barbados was still a colony.
Some Barbadian radio shows have even encouraged listeners to call in and affirm that natural hair styles are unkempt and unsuitable for educational and professional settings.
As someone raised in the Caribbean, this story feels very familiar and very disappointing. Whether we live in the United States, the Caribbean or Africa, we face a similar post-colonial struggle towards natural hair acceptance. (The poem Colonial Girls School by Jamaican poet and novelist Olive Senior gives a poignant summary of how colonial education affects the female, Afro-Caribbean sense of self.) A few short decades ago, the belief that natural hair was ugly and unkempt was widespread and unchallenged. The post-colonial ‘natural hair movement’ is fairly new and we still have a long way to go.
The reality is that the way afro-textured hair behaves is fundamentally different than other textures. It’s not unkempt, it’s DIFFERENT. Too many young girls with tight coils think there is something wrong with them because their hair doesn’t lay straight, or down, or in a defined pattern, or because it isn’t always perfectly symmetrical. And they are receiving messages from society affirming and encouraging those insecurities. When will the message change? When will we come to terms with what our hair is, and stop shaming ourselves and others for how it naturally exists?
Ladies, what are your thoughts on all of this?