Is the US Military Discriminating against Black Women with Natural Hair?


Image released by US Army

Pictures 1-3, released by the US Army.

New appearance standards were recently released by the US Army, aimed to standardize and professionalized soldiers. However, some African-American military women have spoken out in criticism against the changes. A White House petition was commissioned and sent to President Barrack Obama. It received more than 11 000 signatures in the hope that these rules will be reviewed.

So which regulations may be considered discriminatory?

Twists

Twists are banned as they are considered faddish. Section 3-2(d) states:

Examples of hairstyles considered to be faddish or exaggerated and thus not authorized for wear while in uniform, or in civilian clothes on duty, include, but are not limited to, locks and twists (not including French rolls/twists or corn rows); hair sculpting (eccentric directional flow, twists, texture, or spiking); buns or braids with loose hair extending at the end; multiple braids not braided in a straight line; hair styles with severe angles; and loose unsecured hair (not to include bangs) when medium and long hair are worn up.

Hence a hairstyle similar to the one in picture 3 will not be permitted.

Cornrows

Cornrows are allowed but must be small, approximately 1/4 inch in diameter and show no more than 1/8 inch of the scalp between cornrows. Cornrows must start at the front of the head and continue in one direction in a straight line.  I suspect this is to prevent variations of styles, the extreme being  zigzags or squiggly lines.

Dreadlocks

Dreadlocks are banned outright under section 3-2 (h) which states:

Dreadlocks are defined as any matted, twisted, or locked coils or ropes of hair (or extensions). Any style of dreadlocks (against the scalp or free-hanging) is not authorized. Braids or cornrows that are unkempt or matted are considered dreadlocks and are not authorized.

Unfortunately they are automatically deemed unsuitable, perhaps this is due to the headgear.  All headgear must fit snugly and comfortably without bulging or distorting the shape of the headgear. Hair should not protrude from under the edges at different angles.  Hairstyles that prevent the headgear from being worn in this manner are banned.  Dreadlocks may simply be considered to look unprofessional.  There is no provision in the regulations to look at each case individually.

Image

 

Wigs and hair extensions

Wigs and hair extensions are authorized but must ‘look natural’ and have the same appearance as the person’s natural hair. Does this mean  platinum blond, super silky weaves are banned for most black women? (I hope so).

Braids

These are permitted for medium to long hair. Multiple braids are allowed but must be small (1/4 inch), uniformed and braided tightly for neatness. The hair must also be braided fully and styled according to the medium to long hair guidelines (e.g. neatly fastened or pinned).

In conclusion; some of the essential means of styling natural hair; involving twists and dreadlocks, are banned according to these regulations. Furthermore, section 3-2(c) states that:

No portion of the bulk of the hair, as measured from the scalp, will exceed 2
inches (except a bun, which may extend a maximum of 3 inches from the scalp) and be no wider than the width of the head

For a woman with short to medium length natural hair, who is not allowed to put their hair in twists, this may present a problem. Afro textured hair grows upwards, so the longer it grows the bulkier it becomes.  The good news is braids and cornrows of a particular style are allowed.

African-American women make up a third of the armed forces, some believe they have been singled out by these regulations. “I think it primarily targets black women, and I’m not in agreement with it.  I don’t see how a woman wearing three braids in her hair, how it affects her ability to perform her duty in the military” says Patricia Jackson-Kelley of the National Association of Black Military Women.

Doris Richardson WWII Veteran US Army 1943-1945

Doris Richardson
WWII Veteran
US Army 1943-1945

There has also been much debate about this in online forums. One of the top comments on Yahoo stated:

Just in case anyone did not notice the first picture, the woman with the three braids, her hair is straight and could belong to a woman of any nationality, including a Caucasian woman. The third hair style, the twists are larger than 1/4 inch and do not lay flat against her head. The twists are not uniform and are raised up towards the crown of her head, which will interfere with the proper fit of her headgear. All three of these hairstyles are inappropriate, do not look neat, professional or natural and were even banned when I was in the military between 1978-1983. – Karen

Some commentators have said it is simply a matter of safety and uniformity, the same reader wrote:

“I’m sure careful thought to safety and years of deliberation went into the formulation of these regulations. I would bet there were numerous accidents that occurred because of improper fitting of headgear due to hairstyles, that led to these changes.”

Whatever the motive behind these changes, they may cause some women with natural hair to wonder if they are at a disadvantage, simply because they embrace their natural hair texture. Many would have considered it professional to put their hair in twists and pin it down, out of the way. But according to the regulations and comments online, it looks unprofessional.   America is a country with a variety of cultures and people, if this is reflected in the Army, they can’t all look the same. However, I understand the need for uniformity and standards.  Women with relaxed hair or those that wear European wigs and weaves  are unlikely to be affected by these changes or labelled unprofessional.

There is still a lot of ignorance about natural hair, simply because society still isn’t used to seeing black woman with their natural hair texture.  Although the number of women going natural is increasing, over 60% of women in American still relax their hair. It is a process that may take decades of education to change.  Speaking up against any form of discrimination is a step in the right direction.

Many argue that  these new army regulations affect different groups of people, not just black women.  The changes also address male haircuts,  body piercings and tattoos. There are also regulations about makeup and jewelry.

I hope black women in the US Army will not resort  to using relaxers for fear of violating these regulations and that any concerns they have are taken seriously.

Update: these guidelines have now been reviewed and changed accordingly. The language used in the original documents has also been changed as certain words were considered offensive. Here are the new guildelines outlined by the Defense Secretary Chunk Hagel:

The Army

  • Determined the terms “matted and unkempt” are offensive and will eliminate them
  • Authorized temporary two-strand twists
  • Increased size of authorized braids, cornrows and twists; removed spacing requirement
  • Authorized a ponytail during physical training

The Air Force

  • Determined the terms “matted and unkempt” are offensive and will eliminate them
  • Changed the name “dreadlocks” to “locs”
  • Authorized two-strand twists, French Twists and Dutch braids

The Navy

  • Determined no offensive language in the current policy governing hairstyles
  • Removed some dated terms and descriptions on the Navy’s “Frequently Asked Questions” website, including “‘Twist’ hairstyles are not authorized because they fall within the guidelines of being faddish.”
  • Authorized a two-strand twist and multiple braids may hang freely if above the collar and must encompass the whole head

The Marine Corps

  • Determined there was no derogatory or discriminatory language in current uniform regulations
  • Convening a special uniform board  to consider the expansion of authorized hairstyles

Once again, when we in the natural hair community speak out, we promote change and challenge discrimination. Great news!

Do you think these rules are discriminatory against African-American women with natural hair? If you are in the military, do these changes affect you?  Please share your thoughts below.

 

Sources

Army regulations on hair and appearance

http://usarmy.vo.llnwd.net/e2/c/downloads/337951.pdf

Army personal appearance policy

http://1.usa.gov/1ilibHL

 

Thoughts?

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