Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Whiteness and Black hair

One aspect of whiteness that is impossible to miss is the way Black hair is received, treated, experienced, controlled and blamed for all manner of disciplinary and professionalism issues. The image of professionalism is a white man with well-groomed hair in suit and tie in an office setting. The image of unprofessionalism is a Black woman with "natural" hair, regardless of whether or not she is in a suit, plain blouse, comfortable heels, in an office setting. That Back hair has nothing to do with whether or not one is able to execute their professional responsibilities well is irrelevant. We know what we know and that's the end of that.

Every now and then we are reminded of how much further we have to go as people to liberate ourselves from the shackles of whiteness. Just this week, a parent has reminded us that even our children, cute as they be, the loves of our lives, are not immune or immunisable from the whiteness that corrals the adults in their lives. His two years old son has been denied a place at a school because his hair does not "meet the standards" of the school. I know a dog whistle when I hear one and this one is as loud as a siren.

There is a certain type of school administrator that is incapable of seeing Black-ness as wholesome. He, or she, carries the enormous burden of erasing the Black-ness of a child to replace it with the whiteness of a "professional". It always begins with the child's hair. If it is "unkempt", it is wrong. If it is "too long", it is bad. If it is gathered as dreadlocks, it is wrong. In fact, if it is not close-cropped and brushed to a high sheen, it is wrong. It doesn't matter whether the child is a boy or a girl. If the hair is anything but that which is set by the school's standards, it is wrong - and it must be corrected, Or Else. Hence the never-ending wars between school administrators and parents over their children's attendance at school with the hair of the parents' choice. The wars of whiteness over Black-ness.

Some of you will argue, "If you knew what the school rules were, and you chose to enroll your child in that school, then you must conform to the school's rules. Otherwise, peleka mtoto shule ingine." Just like a man's inability to see his privilege in the patriarchy, so too the rule-enforcer's inability to see the pernicious, deleterious effect of whiteness on all our lives. Many of our experiences of whiteness are a series of prohibitions, the Black (human, really) things that we can't do. Things that if they were done by ypipo would not arouse comment, let alone sanction.

Hair is almost always the first thing whiteness denies Black persons. Hair must be treated to chemical or mechanical processes in order to conform to the world of whiteness. It is not acceptable even after all that chemical and mechanical manipulation - it is merely no longer objectionable. It is tolerable. It is the sun-bleached scar on alabaster skin that is not that bad. It makes whiteness feel better about itself. The world is ordered in its likeness - which is always the preferred way for the world to be ordered. And if it means that a child's social and cultural education is short-circuited, then so what?

Friday, July 02, 2021

Will it be a zombie imperialism?

I don't know whether the seven members of the Bench the Court of Appeal shall uphold the judgment of the High Court, affirm it in part and set it aside in part, or set it aside in its entirety; Mr Musinga, JA and his colleagues are playing their cards close to their collective chest. I wish I could tell you whether the arguments of the appellants and respondents resonate with Bench, but I'm not a soothsayer. However, based on my observations of what was said by some of the lawyers gesticulating actively in court, I am minded to say something about the continued assumption that the president of Kenya continues to enjoy a strong hand as the head of state and government.

The legal issues of whether or not the constitution contains a basic structure, and that this basic structure contains unamendable clauses, and that these unamendable clauses, should they be amended, would mean the replacement of the constitution, is a matter I shall leave in the able hands of the seven appeal judges. Instead, let us consider the arguments that have been advanced regarding the place of the president in the amendment of the constitution. The appellants (the unhappy men, women and government officials asking the appeal judges to overturn the High Court judgment) insist simultaneously that the president can approach the amendment of the constitution in his capacity as head of state and government and as a private citizen - Schrödinger's cat of presidential power. The respondents (the nervous men, women and civil society groups that won a momentous victory in the High Court) continue to hold that the president can only bring about an amendment to the constitution in his capacity as the head of state and government; if he wishes to initiate a popular initiative to amend the constitution, they insist, he must resign his office and take his place with Wanjiku - but who among us believes that a Kenyan president would ever resign in order to persuade the people to amend the constitution to grant him more power?

The implications of whether or not the president can participate in the amendment of the constitution in his official or private capacities are the reasons for much hand-wringing among the lawyers representing the appellants because they, in my opinion, suffer vestigial warm feelings for the concept of the president as having the widest freehand to act as he pleases as can be imagined - in short, an imperial presidency. They pine for the presidential imperialism that was engendered and entrenched by the former constitution. For those of us who can remember, the way in which the repeal of section 2A of the former constitution was initiated was by the president, at a political rally in a national stadium, turning to his attorney general and ordering him to bring a Bill for the repeal of section 2A to the National Assembly.

The now-ever-present Wanjiku was not, and had hitherto never been, afforded the courtesy of being consulted. As the president would sarcastically ask seven years later, "What does Wanjiku know about constitution-making?" it is clear that it had never occurred to the men and women cheering Mr Moi and Mr Wako on that fateful day to actually ask the citizens if the restoration of multi-partyism was a good thing or not. Things have evolved considerably since then. Beginning with the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission Act of 1997, the president's free hand has consistently been statutorily constrained, culminating with the explicit declaration in the Constitution of Kenya promulgated 11 years ago: sovereign power belongs to Wanjiku. The president is no longer the sovereign - or a sovereign for that matter. He does not wield sovereign power. He only exercises the power that Wanjiku donates to him - and no more. What the High Court did on that fateful day was to state what the words of Article 1 (1) actually mean. The awful (for the president and the pro-imperial-president cheering squad) consequence of that judgment is that what Mr Moi did in 1990 cannot be done by any of his successors, no matter how compelling a reason they fashion for it. The president can no longer order his government to amend the constitution willy-nilly - he must suffer the approval or rejection of the people.

At the end of the day, when the appellate judges read their judgment, they will be answering a simple question: is the imperial presidency dead and buried or does it still possess vestigial signs of life? The answer has serious implications. It might mean the setting aside of large swathes of constitutional obligations revolving around the participation of the people in determining their constitutional fates. The answer will also reveal who among us plays the mouse to the president's cat when it comes to protecting the values and principles of the constitution - and the rights and fundamental freedoms of Wanjiku.

As by law established

The members of my profession, the ones with a pompous sense of importance, tend to use phrases whose value has diminished greatly since the ...