In a controversial new regulation characterized as discriminatory, the Army has banned common black hairstyles popular with African-American women, including large cornrows, dreadlocks and twists. The 16 women of the Congressional Black Caucus have asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to overturn the new directive on behalf of the 26,700 black women who are active duty in the Army. Another new Army rule bans tattoos on neck, face, lower arms, hands, and fingers of recruits.
The new hair regulations, whose goal is to make clear the professional look of soldiers, requires that hair be of “uniform dimension, small in diameter (approximately one-four inch), show no more than one-eighth (inch) of the scalp between the braids.” Also banned are dreadlocks, including “unkempt” or “matted” braids and cornrows. It is the words “unkempt” and “matted” that indicate racial bias to some African-Americans, as it indicates a lack of understanding of the characteristics of natural, black hair.
Imani Perry, a Princeton University African-American studies professor, states that although it is reasonable for the military to expect some amount of neatness and conformity in hairstyles, those expectations should consider the wide range of natural hair textures that people have. Common black hairstyles such as cornrow braids and dreadlocks are the easiest grooming options for many black women with tightly curly or kinky hair. He goes on to say that female black soldiers are put in a difficult position by the new hair requirements, which are both racially biased and unfair.
Critics say the new regulations are among grooming standards intended to help reduce the size of the army from 570,000 to 420,000. Loren B. Thompson, a Lexington Institute military expert says that during wartime there is a tendency to allow more variation in personal style simply because there are more important things to worry about.
The rules on tattoos are also criticized, especially since they have become popular among soldiers who are deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is the Army’s ban on common black hairstyles such as cornrows and twists that have raised charges of racism. More than 17,000 people have signed an online petition to the White House, asking that the hair regulations be overturned.
In addition to a lack of understanding of the characteristics of black hair, critics say that the regulation uses the hair of white women as its baseline, which rules out common black hairstyles. The texture of black hair, much of which is very curly, makes it difficult to meet the regulations unless it is chemically straightened, a particular problem when the women are deployed since the hair products necessary to maintain straightened hair are expensive and difficult to get, especially in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs, the woman who started the petition to the White House, says she was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and 2009 with a woman who had to keep redoing her cornrows to keep them neat enough to meet the current Army regulations. She says the woman’s hairline had receded an inch by the time they returned to the states.
The Army insists that the new regulations were cleared by a focus group that included black women. An Army spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Alayne P. Conway, says that the new female hair standards were developed with the involvement of African-American female soldiers. The Army’s senior female soldiers involved in the decision-making process banning cornrows, twists, and other common black hairstyles were considered a representative sample of Army populations.
By Beth A. Balen