May 2022 Volume 18

A letter to the Editor on the Grooming Question

Dr. Stephen Vasciannie
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Afro Meets Joshua - 1977 (Stephen Vasciannie meets Prime Minister Michael Manley)

The Editor

The KC Times

Dear Editor,

The issue of grooming, attire and hairstyles – the grooming question -- has once again assumed some prominence with the news that some schools, including our beloved alma mater, have barred certain students from full access because they have fallen short of established rules.

Generally, I subscribe to the view that KC Old Boys should allow the Principal, Board and Staff to conduct the affairs of the school without our interference. But, given that the significance of the grooming question for students all over Jamaica, I offer here a brief note with my two cents’ worth on the broad matter.

Uniformity

I share the view, taken by many, that there may need to be a dress code for secondary students. Uniformity carries implicit virtues. Among other things, uniformity:

  • Promotes some type of rough equality in the school setting.
  • Encourages order and a sense of discipline.
  • Nourishes the idea that students are in a joint quest for learning and that in this quest clothing and appearance are merely incidental questions -- so, we all wear the same thing to de-emphasize appearance.
  • Engenders among students the habit of routinely applying culturally determined standards in some settings. This, of course, is not always a virtue, but the habit of good grooming must readily be supported.

Reasonableness

But it is one thing to accept a uniform policy as a matter of course, and quite another to have a policy that is perceived by stakeholders to be unreasonable, excessive, driven by inflexibility or just out of touch with current practices in one's cultural context. If, for instance, an institution says in effect that girls' school dresses must religiously encircle the ankles, or boys must always have close-cropped haircuts going down almost to hair follicles, then stakeholders are entitled, I believe, to challenge the rules on reasonableness grounds.

Now let's move from my reductio ad absurdum. I acknowledge that it is sometimes difficult to draw the precise line between generally acceptable rules and unreasonable ones. But we have a Ministry of Education which can provide guidance on reasonable expectations as to appearance, and we have school boards which should be guided by reasonableness considerations.

And in weighing up reasonableness, the authorities should bear in mind historical patterns of behaviour in Jamaica that have wrongly sought to fight against the beauty of black hair, especially in the form of the "afro" and the "cane row". I would also want school administrators not to be excessive in their zeal to ensure uniformity, for our historical, cultural and economic circumstances require sensitivity.

So, we should accept the need for rules, but simultaneously advocate that the rules be sensible and sensibly applied. We cannot just say “rules are rules” and foreclose the debate. The rules must be justifiable, especially as failure to meet them may lead to sanctions (some of which may well be disproportionate, I note en passant).

Right?

As a youth whose hairstyle was challenged (privately) at primary school, but was deemed acceptable at KC, I am not at all supportive of sending home students to get haircuts as a first line of approach. It seems to me that the full head of hair carried, for instance, by Principal McNab or indeed by Prime Minister Bustamante back in the day would lead to an exclusion order today at some schools if worn by a 16-year old boy. How can that be right?

- Stephen Vasciannie

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