My mom wept when she first heard, 25 years ago, that I was starting to grow dreadlocks. Not to cause any alarm, she quietly decided not to call me in Belize about what she had heard. Rather, she first sought the consolation and counsel of her relatives in New York, where she was living. I later understood the perception that deeply affected her emotions.
To her mind, this son of hers, her firstborn, her “‘pend-upon”, with all his educational achievements, young family, and a secure international job, must have now flipped into being a weed-smoking, carefree natty-dread. She became freaked out believing from her distance that something must have gone terribly wrong. Her mind was tortured by its own created images of a son wasted, constantly smoked-up high, and consequently bereft of opportunities for success. After all, she, along with my departed dad, dedicated their time and love through socioeconomically challenging times to raise her son and his six younger siblings to become decent, honest, and qualified citizens.
To her great relief, she quickly realized that her torturous mental images from thousands of miles away, were far from reality. Her son’s choice to grow dreadlocks had not in any way changed the personal lifestyle choices that she knew he had maintained over the years. He did not smoke or drink and was continuing his plant-based diet, intermittent fasting periods, frequent meditation retreats, and dedication to work and family. He freely grew his locks of his own choosing. She learned that growing dreadlocks was not unique to Rastafarians.
As a hairstyle that is believed to have originated from various tribes in Africa, dreadlocks are also worn by the monks of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Nazarites of Judaism, the Sadhu’s of Hinduism, the Dervishes of Islam, and many more. In the Bible, reference is made to Sampson and the Nazirites who vowed not to cut their hair. Religious images portray Jesus with long hair. In many other cultures it is not uncommon for their shamans to wear dreadlocks.
The basic symbolism of dreadlocks is that all that time and energy spent on physical appearance and vanity can be more importantly used on spirituality and other more important life pursuits. On the other hand there are those who wear dreadlocks as a personal choice that is not connected to any religious or spiritual practices.
My mother’s reaction was profound. Besides my deep appreciation for her loving concern, to me it brought to the surface the deeply ingrained and learned interpretations that people could have about hairstyles. What if a person so disturbed by perceptions about my hair would have the power to decide whether or not I would be hired for a job or be accepted to a school, even if I were well-qualified? Fortunately, my professional work and connections in Belize and various countries abroad were apparently not impeded by discrimination relating to my locks.
Once I was stopped and searched by armed and jittery BDF soldiers for ammunitions and drugs, and occasionally I am offered drugs when I walk the streets, but these have turned out to be jokes, since I have never in my life had any desire or interest in either. But I know the stereotype quite well.
I am fully aware of the disturbing discrimination that could fester merely because of race, color, ethnicity, creed and hairstyle. My first wake-up call in that regard was my observation of the experience of Mr. Roy Cayetano, who was appointed to be the first principal of Toledo Community College when it was first opened in 1982. Highly qualified and with the most senior experience as an educator and as a senior officer in the Ministry of Education, Mr. Cayetano was poised to take high school education in PG to a fresh new level. That appointment was stopped in its tracks before Mr. Cayetano even started. A self-appointed small group of local elites utilized the holy cover of their church affiliation and pressured the Minister of Education to withdraw the appointment for no reason connected to his stellar qualification and experiences, not to mention his multilingual skills.
The misguided and backward argument was that a dreadlocked principal would not be a desirable representation of the school’s “moral” values. In other words, considerations about Mr. Cayetano’s dreadlocks superseded every other aspect of his life, his international and national experiences in education, his multilingual skills, his unique connection with the diversity of local culture, and his qualifications which were superior to those of all other prospective candidates.
Ironically, while the school suffered the resulting dysfunctional under-qualified leadership that resulted from the replacement, the same group of local elites sent their children to high schools in Belize City, which they could have afforded to do. That wake-up call further deepened my awareness of the heights of hypocrisy and foolishness of discrimination.
These situations arise from a deeply ingrained social structure resulting from centuries of slavery and colonialism. For several decades there were schools in Belize that perpetuated certain definitions of self-love, self-hate and advancement of the superiority of the European cultural image as the standard to emulate. In such schools, for example, female students could not wear their natural hair; it had to be hot-combed or chemically straightened to meet Caucasian standards of neatness. Braided hair, kinky-looking hair, and even darker shades of blackness were belittled by those who considered themselves, or aspired to be, nearest to Caucasian features.
Oftentimes, the constant peer pressure and ridicule against natural hair and features became ingrained to the point of self-hate. Schools did little to address the inflow of racism by children who were socialized into discrimination and racism by their families. Oftentimes there are also teachers who discriminate, and by doing so, they engender discrimination in classrooms.
Standards of appearance and definitions of beauty were defined by the colonial culture that was imposed on others for centuries. What was natural became despised and ridiculed, and beauty was defined by what was fake and required an effort to disguise natural features to achieve the nearest representation of whiteness. Such skin-deep color codes — ranked white, brown and black — also permeate socio-economic strata and determine what opportunities can be accessed in society. Complexions that are white, then brown, starting with shades nearer to white, tended to open higher socioeconomic opportunities in the private sector, government and various other economic sectors, while Black and indigenous peoples tend to be more marginalized.
Among some Black people, as I observed in Jamaica, the pressure of discrimination can become so unbearable that they resort to bleaching their skin (“browning,” the process is called) just to gain acceptance and economic opportunities that they perceive that they are not able to achieve with their natural skin color. It has become so common there that markets stock buckets of bleaching cream for retail sale.
Fortunately, this level of self-hate is not common in Belize, and hopefully it will not be. Similarly, there is the ingrained perception of the superiority of straightened hair, and the total dependence on hair straightening chemicals and weaves to achieve acceptance.
Within this social, historical and economic context, various institutions of society, including schools, are yet to grapple with defining ways to deepen respect for various cultural expressions of people while eliminating racism and discrimination. That is why growing locks or maintaining hair in its natural state still seem to evoke more discrimination, subtle or blatant, from those who desire everyone to fit into a narrowly defined mono-cultural image. Ironically, while there is admiration and adoration of the image of a bearded, long hair Jesus, others who wear their hair in a long and natural state often face discrimination.
I say this all in context of the recent situation where an outrageous attempt was made by the board of the Toledo Community College to deny entry of a Black male student with dreadlocks to that high school. Since the 1980s when a highly qualified candidate was ostracized from becoming principal, until now, 2020, it is disturbing to see that there is still this disdain for dreadlocks at the same school. In all schools these harassing decisions must stop. The court has already ruled against it. No child should ever receive suggestions that his dreadlocks make him not worthy of an education.
Especially in these most troubling times when young Black males continue to be endangered and marginalized, schools should become environments that nurture respect, appreciation and self-love. Schools should assiduously work towards decolonizing the minds from centuries of racism and discrimination. When school decisions are made that reflect the same backward colonial views that disrespect unique cultural expressions, it does not serve any efforts at effective nation building in our multiethnic realities.
Perhaps it is the persistent absence of rigorous teaching and learning of Belize’s colonial, African and indigenous history that continues to perpetuate these antiquated values. Let it no longer be that schools ostracize students for trying to resurrect their stolen legacies and traditions. Instead of celebrating imported Halloween school celebrations which have no bearing on who we are, when will schools promote deeper awareness and celebration of Emancipation? Instead of promoting “dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh,” “let it snow, let it snow” and fake-snowflakes “winter wonderland” school celebrations in our tropics, can those worn out façades be replaced by a genuine appreciation of who we really are?
Instead of spending time targeting dreadlocks, can’t principals focus their energies on reversing their stubborn insistence on marketing soft-drinks at their schools, even while the communities and nation continue to suffer one of the highest rates of diabetes in the region? Can’t they instead dedicate more focus on deep reforms towards a liberating and empowering education that nurtures creativity and productivity, and that engenders deeper respect for and connection with self, others, community and nature? The image of the long-haired Lord and Savior that is regularly adored by school authorities ought to profoundly remind us that physical appearances do not determine the quality of a person’s essence or character along this short journey of life.
So it is written.