Black Feminism Reader: Confusing Anti-Blackness, Sexism and Violence With “Discipline”

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This black feminism reader will explore the relationship between “discipline” and abuse within the Caribbean.

The education system is my entire life. I grew up in a household with two teachers; my mother went to Teacher’s College in Saint Lucia and my father had four different degrees (including a law degree) before he joined her to teach at what claims to be the best secondary school in Saint Lucia. My parents care about education more than anything; I realize just how real this statement is whenever I go somewhere with my father and every. single. girl. stops and says hello to their dear former math teacher.

I am one of the lucky few (and really, there can’t be more than 12 of us) who left secondary school in Saint Lucia to attend boarding school in the United States (a school that currently ranks #7 Private School in the country). My luck doubles and I attended Middlebury College (#4 Liberal Arts College in the U.S.)

Simply showing up and sitting in classrooms regurgitating information is not all it takes for education to be important to you. When I say education is important to me, I mean the only type of education that really exists — self education. At any given moment, there are no teachers, the decision to learn rests squarely within yourself. Without anyone breathing down my neck, I have chosen learning again and again and again.

Learning is the driving force behind everything I do (even my business) and I feel confident to speak with relative authority about what education means and what real and genuine road blocks to a “good education” exist in Saint Lucia.I see the value of “discipline” touted by fellow former students, many of which who have experienced the heavy abuse touted as “discipline” by West Indian school systems. I won’t lie to you (or maybe I will…haha!) this makes me upset. Infuriated.

For one thing, it shows a complete ignorance towards the meaning of the word discipline. To them, discipline learns how to do what you’re told. How to accept extrinsic motivation so you (yourself) are not actually motivated to do anything of your own accord — you are always being forced due to fear of punishment to do something else.Interesting.Let’s examine a definition I prefer:
“Discipline is the ability to structure one’s time and the ability to handle freedom.”

This definition fits a lot more with the lessons I learned in high school than any I learned growing up in the Caribbean. Discipline there was about submitting to authority, in school it was about becoming a whole person and recognizing that as a whole person, you needed to manage your own time and your own freedom.

Punishments were limited for big mistakes — not dished out for pittances like long nails or “big earrings”. Funny how I wore hoop earrings nearly every day and graduated cum laude while I’m sure many with studs could not have done the same.
Here, it seems people think discipline means learning to accept emotional and physical violence without questioning whether or not it is justified. Most times, it’s because those rules would not stand up to scrutiny. This psychology allows adults to verbally abuse children for no reason. Those who are punished learn to associate authority and structure with negativity in their lives. And they aren’t wrong. Emotional abuse is also rampant.For a refresher, emotional abuse is defined as any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.”

For example:

  • Forcing students who misbehave to stand outside alone.
  • Mocking students who don’t understand in classes or who ask “obvious” questions.
  • Intimidating students with aggressive yelling and shouting to get their way.

You just can’t deny that this isn’t just rampant, it’s NORMAL across schools in the Caribbean. And let me not even start on physical abuse such as the violent beatings boys at “the best” boy’s school in the island get or the way primary school teachers continue to break thick sticks on their students backs.

Our view of discipline is backwards and an obvious vestige of colonialism — a system which dictates that this is the way black people SHOULD be treated. People behave like the choices are: violence or NO DISCIPLINE, STUDENTS TURN INTO CREATURES AND RUN WILD.

But this is simply not the case. There are decades of psychological research to draw upon that suggest healthy, non-abusive alternatives. Just thinking abuse is the only choice is a sign of how fundamentally broken and myopic our society has taught people to be. An example of a book filled with great alternatives is Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson Ed.D. At least read and educate yourself before you hold such staunch beliefs.

Violence in the education system is of course targeted and the most marginalized people face the worst of it. I actually believe that men and women face violence that is equal in terms of the damage it causes in their lives. I believe that men face greater physical violence throughout their educational careers while the attacks against women tend to be more emotional. Despite this egalitarian distribution of flagrant abuse, the “discipline” that young girls receive in school does reflect our culture’s misogyny.

Some of the “rules” that I’ve experienced in public schools in Saint Lucia involve:

  • Excess policing of skirt length (to prevent young girls from being slutty? looked at?) More on that here:[x]
  • Excess policing of activity whilst wearing school uniform — a constant form of surveillance that many are not subjected to
  • Classes designed for the sole purpose of turning you into a homemaker (apparently needlework no longer exists… There is a God.)
  • Policing of behavior to ensure that it is “ladylike” — being a “lady” is apparently more important than being self-assured, confident, intelligent, or a whole human being who makes decisions for themselves.

This sexism sends a message to women of Saint Lucia that their worth as individuals is reliant on how well they conform. Of course, every society has customs and rules that regulate it but when there is no room for individuality, we have to examine whether or not these “customs” that call for rigid conformity are even worth holding onto.

These rules are also used to label others. Certain women are put into boxes. If one girl is “always wearing a short uniform” and then later finds herself a victim of rape or sexual assault (let’s say, in the form of a leaked naked picture) then teachers and students alike justify it by claiming it was a flaw in her character that led to her victimization. These misogynistic rules lay the foundation for victim blaming in West Indian culture. Women who are not ladylike deserve certain things to happen to them, while those who conform believe themselves to be protected simply because of their ability to perform “good behavior”.

You may already be able to guess how that parlays into anti-blackness. Caribbean culture is rife with racism no matter how much we pretend to be an idyllic Utopian melting pot. Like most other racial hierarchies, white people inhabit the very top and black people populate the bottom of the hierarchy. The darker you are, the more abuse you face at the hands of those who are deigned to educate and teach you. (I wonder what lessons most students really internalize… Hm.)

The hidden racism of the education system is denied by nearly everyone I speak to. Yet when I highlight specific examples of white and/or wealthy students receiving preferential treatment (some of which I was privy to myself) all of a sudden, they’re able to access their own memories of such things happening throughout their educations in the Caribbean. It’s not that people — from all walks of life — don’t notice, they merely haven’t had it pointed out to them because we are taught to ignore and hide racism in the West Indies.

White students tend to be punished less than black students. White students are presumed to be more intelligent than black students. White students tend to come from wealthier families so they are often afforded more extra-curricular privileges than black students. Swimming lessons, ballet, piano or violin are far more common amongst white students (for example) as compared to black students who come from less wealthy families.

This is a method of institutionalizing racism in West Indian culture. It’s a method of institutionalizing the fact that white people are inherently more valuable and more deserving of “special” treatment than black people. It’s a lesson that teaches blackness is ugly, poor and something to be ashamed of. Children might not be capable of verbalizing these lessons but they are certainly capable of internalizing.

I see it all the time. I saw it in myself when I was a child. I see it in my nine year old cousin whenever she calls her skin color and nappy hair ugly. Yet at the same time, she is amazed by long, straight hair. Who taught her to hate her skin? Where do those lessons begin? It’s too easy of a cop out to blame individual parents as opposed to attacking the system responsible for educating our population. And let me not forget to mention, this anti-blackness is a form of emotional abuse in and of itself. It is an attack on the self-worth of our people.

All of these different things are mistaken for discipline either colloquially or on a societal level. To most people, discipline is the equivalent of conforming to aggressive authority. Discipline is the equivalent of internalizing a mindset that discriminates against black people. Discipline is women accepting their place as subservient in our society. I encourage West Indians to educate themselves and think long and hard about what discipline means to them. In order to disrupt the current status quo, where white is right and the black and poor continue to suffer, how can we hold on to a colonial legacy that normalizes abuse as part of the education process?

I advocate for the undisciplined people — for those labelled trouble makers and rabblerousers. I advocate for them to direct their rebellious energy, to find who the real enemy in our society is and to fight these notions that unquestioning acceptance of the social order is the correct way to live. Continue to defy the idea that white is right and black is wrong. Continue to  defy the idea that “ladies” deserving of respect must conduct themselves a certain way. Channel your energy for what you know is right and continue to ignore what society tells you makes you worthy of love.

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