I think we’re at that very Bahamian threshold, when salient issues are answered with the ubiquitous, “We still talkin’ bout dat?” Of course, I’m referring to the puff that started a social media firestorm- the story about the young lady from C. R. Walker High School who was disciplined for her “unkempt” natural hair by the principal. Yes, I’m sure some of you are tired of hearing this minor issue being blown out of proportion, but please allow for one final intervention.
In the wake of “The Great Bahamian Hair Debate” there are some who would wish to deny the importance of this moment- to redirect attention to more “pressing issues” like crime and growing economic inequality. Not so fast.
If you think that this was just about hair, you have been sniffing the creamy crack. This moment is bigger than any one puff and for Bahamian progressives it presents a unique opportunity to advance a number of our most important concerns.
What started out as a conflict between a school principal and young girl and her mother has ignited passionate debate across our little island nation. Even beyond our borders, NowThis, BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, all clearinghouses for viral content, have published coverage of the incident. For some, the growing omnipresence of this story signals the superficiality of Bahamian socio-political engagement but I would argue that it is this same omnipresence that gives us a clue to this story’s significance.
In its constant telling and retelling, the principal, the child and the mother have ceased to exist. They have become symbolic; characters in an archetypal struggle that has excavated longstanding conflicts particular to our post-colonial context- conflicts around race, class, gender, and even generational difference. It doesn’t matter anymore what actually happened during the inciting incident. Specific communities and ideologies have coalesced around each of the players in this drama, drawing a stark line through Bahamian society and opening the door to more host of other issues.
For those opposed to her actions, and unfortunately for principal, in their narrative she has come to represent the Bahamian status quo in its entirety- a worldview anchored in a traditionalism, exclusion, a politics of respectability and perhaps even Eurocentrism.
What we heard often invoked in her defense was that “the rules are the rules,” “we cannot allow children to challenge authority,” and “the reality is that the professional world does not accept an unkempt look”. While those defending her may see her as a steward for order and decency, what is even more unfortunate is that those who disagree with that stance have a better grasp of how to use the powerful tool that is social media.
For these same people, the young lady at the center of all of this, as well as her mother, symbolize something wholly different. They have come to signify authenticity, progress, and change. They have, whether we want to admit it or not, become the proxies for a cross-section of Bahamians who are frustrated with the way things are and desire a change in our current course. For those who support the principal, they represent what is wrong with Bahamian society, as especially with a new generation of Bahamians, who have no respect for the way things were, the things that made us once a peaceful, dignified people.
When people become the objects in a narrative their actions and even their intentions are invested with meaning. The story of the puff, and the characters in the story about that puff, represent more than a row about a hairstyle; they represent a growing conflict of values, a conflict of ideologies.
As George Lakoff and his team at the Rockridge Institute explain in Thinking Points, a bible for progressive communications strategy, when we examine the difference between conservative and progressive ideologies, what we are really looking at is two different perspectives of how people understand the role of government through the lens of the archetypal family. Conservatives believe that government should be a strict and exacting father, while progressives see government as the nurturing parent, supportive instead of disciplinary. These perspectives can frame a person’s entire world view.
For decades we have assumed, without challenge, that Bahamians are almost universally conservative. But if that were the case, support for the principal would have been just as universal- authority shouldn’t be challenged, authority has the right to dictate what a person can do with their body, and standards of respectability should be respected. Instead what we have seen is a swell of support for the student and her mother- that authority can and should sometimes be challenged, that people should have autonomy over their bodies and that the politics of respectability, based in colonial standards, must be critiqued.
I believe this signals a growing progressive consciousness, supported by media and social media savvy young Bahamians who are willing to drive the discourse around issues that matter to them. That this kind of movement has been built around an issue, also suggests a shift away from the simple divisions of partisan Bahamian politics towards the primacy of issues.
Where political parties have no discernible ideology, young people in particular are eschewing their familial ties to political organizations and engaging with the issues they are encountering daily. In the Bahamian context, connecting shared values to these issues will strengthen advocacy.
One of the defining characteristics of #SupportThePuff is that it is something to which many people can relate. Being judged for your physical appearance, whether it is a hairstyle, your weight or skin color is something we’ve all experienced. It is the absence of that kind of relatability that has been the downfall of previous attempts at garnering political engagement around important issues.
We wonder why is it that women have rallied around the #SupportThePuff movement but not eliminating clauses that discriminate against women in our constitution? The question should be have we done a good enough job of making that discrimination real for every day Bahamian women? Do they truly understand what this means for them? An essential part of advocacy, even of persuasion, is meeting people exactly where they are.
It is possible that progressives, women’s rights groups and the government can parlay this moment to build support for the forthcoming gender-equality referendum by bridging this story and the values of its supporters with an issue like constitutional reform.
Just because something is a rule, whether it is constitutional discrimination or the arbitrary regulation of the hairstyles of school children, does not make it just. As Bahamians we fought against a colonial regime forty-three years ago but that work is not yet complete. Like the remnants of colonial standards of respectability that tell us that our natural hair is “unkempt”, we must also change a constitution that tells us that women should not have the same citizenship rights as men. Finally, what is on top of your hair shouldn’t determine the opportunities that are made available to you and the same can be said for what is between your legs.
Even beyond the issue of gender equality, solving the more “pressing issues” can benefit from recognizing how centering shared values in advocacy and political communication is key.
Abating the rise in violent crime, for example, is at the top of the agenda for the the government and citizens alike. There are those who would argue that what we really need to do is increase police presence, better arm the police force, increase sentencing and return to capital punishment. These are essentially conservative solutions and as is common with conservatives, it invokes a strict and punitive government/father.
We know, however, that it is socio-economic and cultural factors driving rising crime levels in the Bahamas. These challenges can’t be addressed with a better armed police force, they require the opportunity for rehabilitation, restoration, a better quality of education and greater economic opportunity. Those solutions invoke the nurturant government/parent, and now we know that there’s a considerable community of people whose values connect to that ideological perspective.
Progressives cannot control what grips the attention of everyday Bahamians, but with some critical examination we can use it. Superficial or not, it is how we leverage these moments of convergence to identify communities that we can tap and the values they hold- to move away from the conservative politics of the past. And it is those very same values that we must call on, that we can connect to the big issues, in the hopes of changing the lives of everyday Bahamians.
Joey Gaskins is a native of
Grand Bahama and a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in
Politics. He studied at the London School of Economics and Political
Science (LSE) where he attained his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and
Post-Colonial Studies and begun a Doctoral Degree in Sociology. Joey
lives in Nassau and is a former part-time lecturer at College of the
Bahamas, restaurant owner and is a communications and policy strategy
consultant. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.