Genderational - Alicia Wallace
#FreeThePuff, Free the Mind
By Alicia Wallace
Feb 18, 2016 - 11:01:28 PM

Mothers are fighting for their daughters. They are intervening and advocating for their daughters’ rights to exist as black people, unashamed of roots, from historical to follicle.

Young women are holding fast to their identities, rights, and truths as citizens, students, and members of the African diaspora. They are unapologetic about the texture, length, height, and natural state of their hair, even in the face of subjective policies and discriminatory interpretations of them. #FreeThePuff is one of the fastest movements to be built, spreading across the nation in a matter of hours, across gender, generational, class, and religious lines, uniting black Bahamians who recognize the power of natural hair and the threat to its existence that necessitates this dialogue and this movement.

Many roll their eyes when we decry the slavery we continue to suffer, failing to see through the mask of law, order, and the pursuit of success, which leads to the perpetuation of respectability politics.

If you want to get a job, you need to process and style your hair according to the standards set by the British, followed long after the Independence we celebrate on Clifford Park, year after year.

If you want your children to have a chance at admission into schools and the first round of job interviews, you need to give them Anglo names.

If you want to comfortably sit at tables surrounded by your kin and associate with those in the upper echelons of society, you need to learn to code switch. You need to use slang and dialect with your own kind, and stick to Standard English, eschewing any “Wulff Road English”, when in the presence of those to whose positions you aspire.

If you don’t want your sons to be shot in the street, you need to tell them not to wear hoodies, keep their hands out of their pockets, and put their hands in the air and say “Don’t shoot” like a prayer to the god-with-a-gun standing before them and hope for the best.

If you don’t want to be killed in prison, you need to put out your cigarette when a police officer - who has no authority to demand it - tells you to after pulling you over for, while black, failing to use a signal when you quickly switched lanes to avoid a collision with said officer.

Where will the line be drawn?

The statement released by the Ministry of Education, Science & Technology claims it appreciates “the natural and cultural heritage of The Bahamas” and the responsibility of “tolerance and understanding”. The statement goes on to describe the natural state deemed acceptable by the Ministry of Education, Science & Technology as “properly groomed and neat”. This, clearly is open to interpretation, and therein lies a part of the problem. This vague statement leaves room for the administration of each school to enforce its own rules, fueled by internalized prejudices and the systemic racism they continue to suffer and perpetuate, failing to break the cycle.

Is chemically straightened hair properly groomed and neat when on its fourth day of a well-gelled hairstyle? Is it properly groomed and neat, when it’s worn in a bun with loose strands that doesn’t quite make the last full loop hang loosely? Is hair properly groomed and neat when it is irreparably damaged by the chemicals used to make it more acceptable for the likes of those buying into Eurocentric beauty standards? Is natural hair properly groomed and neat when it takes the form of dreadlocks? Is it properly groomed and neat when worn in a band, combed and picked for even distribution and length, extending upward and outward from the scalp? For hair to be properly groomed and neat, does the texture and style have to be attractive to school administrator with the authority to make the call?

If the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is content to have its vague regulations interpreted at the discretion of school administrators, it is not committed to the “natural and cultural heritage” of The Bahamas as it stated, and puts our hairitage in the line of fire. This is disappointing, degrading, and devastating, and its statement serves no purpose.

Equally disappointing is the number of people who claim to be pro-natural hair, but lament the fact that people are strongly supporting #FreeThePuff.

Some of these people were the loudest voices, singing, screeching, and yelling that they slay, not even two weeks ago. They liked baby hair and afros, they went off, and they were prepared to get in formation, but that may only be because it was behind a woman with long, fan-blown hair. Many among us are prepared to sing the lyrics and bust the moves, but not ready to get into social or political formation with a hashtag to support a group of natural-haired young women with the gumption and, thankfully, the familial support to fight for their rights to wear their natural hair and have access to every opportunity they deserve including prefect nominations and a place on the debate team. These people argue that other national issues deserve this level of attention and action.

As we often remind our Prime Minister and Members of Parliament, this is not a one-issue country. We cannot have a one-issue country, and we certainly cannot and will not have a one-issue citizenry. We can be frustrated by the self-denial the school in question is attempting to thrust upon its black student body and the failure of the Government of the Bahamas to honor the results of the referendum on gambling.

There are several factors that determine how we respond to issues including personal experiences, emotional triggers, ease of action, media access, and perceived end result. None of them are up for debate, nor do they preclude any individual actor or group of actors from taking action. Many social media users have posted that gender equality is more important than the issue at hand, but the latter is getting more attention. Interestingly, many of those people did not attend protests, rallies, or volunteer trainings, donate money, or take any substantial action as the ill-fated five-times-delayed gender equality referendum approached.

The idea that this issue - of young women being told that their hair is unprofessional and asked to alter it to receive an education - is not important, or not as important as some other issue is dangerous.

Sense of self is important. Self-esteem is important. Self-respect is important. If we don’t have these things, we are not able to recognize and rebuke discrimination when it is enacted against us. If we don’t have these things, we are liable to discriminate against others in the same ways we have been discriminated against which, let us not forget, is how this conversation started.

If we lose our identity, what is left to fight for?

Gender equality is important. Transparency and accountability in government are important. NHI is an issue of national importance. Unemployment is an issue of national importance. Who is prepared to say that any of these is more important than anti-racist movements? Who is prepared to say that the way we see, think about, and treat ourselves and those who look like us is not reflected in every other issue that vexes us? Who is prepared to say that racism, colorism, sexism, and classism do not rear their ugly heads every time we make judgments about murder victims, use The Bible to support the subjugation of women, refuse to patronize black-owned businesses in favor of a different name or status, make unnecessary beyond-our-means purchases, threaten our children with public school if their grades or behavior don’t improve, ridicule the women who feed their families thigh snacks and Blue Mystics, speak to strangers in uniform better than we speak to our own family, comment on the contestants in Miss Bahamas, view a job application, critique news anchors, and comment on little girls’ long, pretty hair and beautiful complexion?

These are personal issues. These are political issues. These are social issues. These are all our issues, as Bahamian people, as Caribbean people, as formerly colonized people, as black people, as the descendants of slaves, and as people who continue to suffer the effects of slavery and colonization every day of our lives.

Will we not resist? Will we not continue to fight for our freedom? Gone are the shackles from our feet, but will we speak? Will we try to prevent others from speaking? Will we pick up where the master left off, attempting to exercise control over others as it has been exercised over us? When will it end?

There will always be a cause more worthy, an issue more relevant, to those outside of the venn diagram of people who are directly affected and people who care enough to support them. That is okay.

If an issue speaks to you, speak to it. If you have it in you to do something about an issue, do it. You will not identify with every issue or every movement built in response. That is okay. It is not okay to tear it down, minimize it, or ridicule the people who support and help to carry it. If you see a hole, fill it. We do not need more people to tell us we’re not doing the right thing because it is not important to them. We need people to do the work. Be guided by your needs, your beliefs, and your desires. Create something. Encourage someone. Be the change you want to see, and stay out of the way of people working on the things you think are too small, too personal, too irrelevant.

This is your call to action. Do something. Support a movement you believe in. Make a donation to a non-profit organization doing work you think is important. Get a group of friends together to work on project related to a common interest. Mentor a young person. Talk to your neighbors about community issues. Use social media to share your points of view, call others to action, and make real change. Pointing fingers, complaining, and ridiculing people doing real work isn’t helping. Do something that will. Don’t just sing the song. Get in formation. 

I got an Afro pick in my bag. Swag.

Alicia Wallace is a Bahamian writer, blogger, and social and political commentator. She holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from St. Mary's University, Halifax, NS. She is a women's rights activist, passionate about public education, community engagement, and the empowerment of women and girls. Alicia is the Director of Hollaback! Bahamas- part of a global movement to end street harassment - and Co-founder of the Coalition to End Gender-based Violence & Discrimination. She serves as the Youth Ambassador for The Bahamas to End Sexual Violence, and is one of 60 recipients of the Queen's Young Leaders Award in 2015. Alicia lives in Nassau, Bahamas.  Connect with her on Facebook Or


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