As Black people in America wage protests over systemic racism, many Jamaicans in the diaspora are incensed over a recent Supreme Court ruling in their home country, that many view as racially discriminatory.
On the brink of the island’s Emancipation Day holiday, Jamaica’s Supreme Court on July 31, ruled that the constitutional rights of a young girl were not breached when she was barred from attending school because of her dreadlocks.
In the written judgment, handed down on August 3, the panel of judges stated that there was no breach of the child’s constitutional rights. The judgment also suggested that the attorney who represented the family, Isat Buchanan showed a clear misunderstanding of the law in his submissions on the issue of freedom of religion.
In the 2018 incident, the girl’s mother, Sherine Virgo was told that her then five-year-old daughter would need to cut her hair before she could attend the Kensington Primary School in Portmore, St. Catherine. The school stated that the wearing of dreadlocks was against its policy due to fears of a lice outbreak at the school.
In August 2019, the Supreme Court had granted an injunction for the child to attend the school after the Jamaican human rights group Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) filed a motion on behalf of the child and her parents.
While the case may have been dismissed due to legal technicalities, the very genesis of the case has triggered an entire island, where the majority of the population is of African-descent.
The fact that a rule of this nature even exists on the island which birthed the Rastafarian religion and culture has shocked the entire diaspora and the world. The potential exploitation of such a rule has also been a factor for Jamaicans that are outraged.
In a public Facebook group: JAMAICA DIASPORA Southern USA, Jamaicans living abroad expressed their anger and shock at the ruling. Georgia Bryce posted: “What kind of hifoluted, “Americanized” horse manure nonsense is this?!! Are you kidding me? Rastafarianism/dreadlocks/locks is as Jamaican as it gets. Are we losing our culture here? I hope there is massive corporate resistance, even from the “bald-head” community. KMT!!” with a link to a Washington Post article on the ruling.
Other Jamaicans echoed similar sentiments, saying that the Rastafarian religion and dreadlocks are an integral part of Jamaican culture and as such, there should be no discrimination.
Norma Wright called on Prime Minister Andrew Holness to “wake up and do not allow the courts to strife the rights of Jamaican people.” She posted that “Dreadlocks are revered all over the world and most importantly the Religious practice and symbol of the true Rastafarian. Are you waiting for an uprising of your people?? Please do the right thing and spearhead the abolishment of such unjust ruling.”
In the Facebook group, Linton Thomas took a shot at the judges for the wigs that form part of their uniform. “Those judges need to take off their nasty colonial wigs and think – they are still thinking like the slave owners!”.
Jamaica has had a long history of anti-Rastafarianism and anti-Blackness coupled with issues of classism and colorism. Despite being popularized by Bob Marley and reggae music, Rastafarians are still a small percentage of Jamaica’s population and face much discrimination outside of their own families/communities.
Rochelle Patten, another Jamaican from the diaspora, said that over the years, she had hoped the culture of discrimination had changed. “It’s not losing our culture. Jamaica has always discriminated against Rastafarians,” she posited to the Facebook group. “I’d hoped that things had changed and that they would have embraced it as part of our heritage and culture. As far as I’m concerned, the Maroons and Rastafarians are the closest link to our African ancestors,” she said.
The girl’s father called the ruling another sign of “systemic racism.”
“A child was refused because of her Black hair, you know?” said Dale Virgo, father of the now seven-year-old girl. “It’s so weird that right now in the current climate of the world, in 2020, we are having protests, and Black people are fed up.”
Virgo said that this is an opportunity for the government to step in and “right the wrongs” of its legal system. But the island’s government cannot overturn the ruling of a court.
Any change would have to be made the Ministry of Education regarding specific kinds of discrimination, to prevent similar incidents to happen in the future.
Currently, Jamaica’s Ministry of Education has not set any clear guidelines regarding such discrimination. While there is a general position taken against discrimination, its “soft guidance” leaves room for a school board to make decisions about certain specifics, like appropriate hairstyles for students.
Buchanan has already indicated that he intends to appeal the court’s ruling. He insisted that the child’s constitutional rights to freedom of expression, the right to religion, equity, equality before the law and access to education, among others, were breached.
Buchanan also said that the judgment will have further implications for the child and her parents. “The injunction which caused the child to go to the school without being harassed or harmed is now lifted, and the child is at the mercy of the school,” Buchanan said.
In the meantime, the girl’s mother has said that her daughter will continue to sport her dreadlocks. “I will not be cutting her hair! That was never an option on the table. As it is right now, it seems that everything is going the homeschool direction anyways.”
While the Minister of Education, Karl Samuda declined to comment on the incident, Prime Minister Andrew Holness responded to the outrage, saying that his administration has also been against discrimination.
In a statement on August 1, he said his administration has always maintained that “children must not be discriminated against, nor deprived of their right to an education…”
According to Holness, it is “time to review and amend the Education Act to reflect a modern and culturally inclusive position” that protects children from being barred from schools for religious religions.