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Wining in others’ shoes

Monday, February 5, 2018

My New York readers recall how parts of our stories can vanish. How we need to stubbornly re-tell them. It’s the youthman at the end, who shifts the narrative, who’s disappeared again. Like panman Markus, my pardner Amilcar Sanatan fell out of my story about pardners the other day, one he was supposed to be the centre of. One that started listening to him jumping up in the national winetiefin debate, on Hema’s morning show and his blog.

He asked men defending winetiefin as culture to wine in women’s shoes—highlighting two powerful things in painfully shorty supply that we can build a nation around.

Playfulness and empathy.

They almost disappear altogether when we engage across ethnicity, gender or sexuality. Remember the squeaky, foul-mouthed Cocorite 14-year-old’s video casually imagining violence against her Prime Minister, punctuated by race and pudenda; the Rio Claro 24-year-old’s post wishing the rape and halal slaughter of his PM’s wife and daughters. These aren’t exceptions. Buggery litigant Jason Jones can tell you how casual online death threats are.

At an internet governance forum panel on social media activism that he missed his flight and was unable to sit on, Attillah Springer and SueAnn Baratt shared how off-the-cuff invocations of their grandmothers’ murders are and how, though seemingly random, they actually target those who defy gender, class and race prescriptions.

It’s my experience, too—how the audacity of my bright black ness drives others tizzic. Yes, it surprises me how it is more often race than sexuality that elicits fury at me stepping “out of place.”

The moral of the lost end of my story was about righteousness. That my pardners in men’s and women’s movements—those in Single Fathers Association and UWI’s Gender Studies Institute I’d predicted playfully for 2015 would collaborate—aren’t actually likely to, because we all need to be right.

Now here we are again this month, down another dramatically gendered rabbit-hole of a debate, about Miss’ hem.

At a Parliamentary oversight hearing on school violence and bullying, Clarence Mendoza, newly-elected to the National Parent-Teacher Association executive, felt it appropriate to graphically raise teachers’ blouse-and-skirt. Female teachers’ clothing choices are making them “inappropriately touched” by boys “in a lot of schools.”

1…2…3…Womantra. “Victim-blaming.” Dresscodes in the tropics. Editorials.

Of course, here’s another school community official hopelessly believing moral decorum—women’s “particularly”—is at the centre of school violence. Even NPTA president Raffiena Ali-Boodoosingh quickly walked things back, telling media boys need to be socialised to respect women.

The whole affair, though—like the West Port-of-Spain traffic plan and last month’s wining consent nine-days-wonder—shows how hard it is to solve problems unless we practise empathy, embrace the complexity of the debate and not just our own interests.

On the one hand, skirt lengths are way down on the list of school system priorities. On the other, lost beneath Mendoza’s sexist moralising is another lesson on how schools are failing boys. Failing to teach them hems and necklines aren’t licence to touch. Failing to pay attention to how their hormones affect their learning needs.

How teachers dress matters. My male fourth-form teacher would unbutton his hairy chest all the way down, during class. I showed up at his house at 2 am, madly in love, and wanting to kill myself. I failed his subject.

What boys and girls both need are smaller, less streamed schools, with relevant curriculum, evidence-based methods, robust life-skills and counselling supports and valued, accountable professionals.

Who dress modestly: teachers’ dress is simply a matter of putting students first in a profession I believe is increasingly less accountable, and less valued. Most T&T dress codes are flagrantly colonial. Some are about professional accountability.


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