We sometimes internalise the oppressions and trappings of social systems which we can seldom control or change. I found myself accepting the necessity of respectability politics when I walked the corridors of The Bishops’ High School six years ago.
Not being “Bishops born-and-bred”, my attempted resistance against the system which dictated and policed my hair, my clothes (I can’t stand ties now), my language, and my freedom to drink water in public was met with resounding clapback from those who clearly had more power, and whose influence extended far beyond the insular walls of the school. The master’s influence became more and more evident when we received lectures about old students seeing us on the road in the uniform doing the things we weren’t supposed to be doing. There was no place where our resistance, however small, went unnoticed.
Of course, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ argument surfaced to explain away the idea that the school’s values were changing (I’ll come back to this later). It’s not to say there weren’t those from the “us” category who conducted themselves like “them”, they suffered a similar fate of being othered, marginalised, and made invisible. But at least they started from a place of ownership and belonging, those of us not “born and bred” were reminded of our otherness from day 1. This was never a system meant to acknowledge difference nor to celebrate it, but instead to create a cookie-cutter model for “respectability.”
Recognising the power dynamics and submitting myself to the false sense of security that came with the trappings of elitism associated with the school, I became the thing I dreaded. It had no place in my family at home nor with my friends who could no longer recognise me because my change, in their eyes, had become to strong too soon.
The BHS was, historically, an elitist all-girls private school serving the interests of middle, upper-middle, and high income families. Families below those income brackets either scraped up the money, or were fortunate to receive scholarships for their children. The school’s culture and historical place were shaken violently by Prime Minister Burnham’s destruction of the exclusive private school system in Guyana, and again by the coeducation policy which opened schools like BHS, SJH, QC, Saints, and Roses to both sexes.
There are those in the BHS system today who recall vividly the elite all-girls history of the school because they lived it. A time they deemed the golden years where women aspired for marriage to the Saints or QC boys and were prepared for their responsibilities as wife and mother, and in some cases for public service employment, all the while preserving the narcotic false sense of security that came with the trappings of “respectability”.
Fast forward to 2017, the policing of hair still happens, both men and women. An age-old school policy drenched in a racist colonial history which idealised sameness and shunned difference. I recall one girl, during my time, who was forced to pull her hair into one even though she had cut most of it off and was then sporting a boy cut. A ribbon was forcibly tied to whatever strands she could gather at the back of her head. School rules. Other girls, black of course, were asked to straighten their kinky hair so it could be tied neatly into one. I recall my anger with one black girl who was allowed to evade that rule. I regret my anger now, partially, because her close affiliation with those in school administration allowed her privilege to do so. Across the pond in South Africa and the Bahamas, girls protest this blatant racism.
Brassette Henry, daughter of the junior education minister and current ‘non-BHS’ BHS student, has found herself in an interesting position. Accusations made against her hair and how she wears it are intrinsically linked to a perceived devaluation of the school, and a destruction of the old heritage long preserved. The narcotic trapping of the elitist and exclusive BHS culture demands a rejection of Brassette not only because her hair is perceived defiant, but also because her defiance is seen as an attempt to tear down what she does not understand while she is part of the “them” category. I could be wrong, but what I know is that we must examine our rage against Brassette and what she symbolises.
Is it that the old guards of BHS elitism are slipping in their preservation of the status quo? Not likely. See, Brassette, by virtue of her mother’s position and influence, forms part of the 1% within the 1%. A cabal, within the already exclusive population of academic excellence, for whom the rules are always flexible. Who could talk down to the daughter of the junior education minister? I remain convinced that a clear message has already been sent to the management of the BHS that a new sheriff is in town. This is even more evident by Minister Henry’s loathful stalking of the facebook page of young former BHS student, Trisha Bhagwandin.
In the trappings of respectability politics and power dynamics, we are trained or expected- students and teachers alike- to never offend those most honourable and their progeny. While I say again we must examine our rage in this hair affair, I suggest the anger is hardly with Brassette’s hair and more about the dissonance between the school’s diseased historical values when confronted by the strength, power, and influence of the inner 1%.
Love. Liberty. Vybs.