Early this April, the Army introduced what it believed to be new regulations regarding uniformity and safety. What Army Regulation 670-1 really did was introduce racially biased regulations banning twists, dreadlocks, and any hairstyle in which the “bulk of the hair exceeds more than two inches from the scalp”—a rule that pushes African American women toward expensive and hair-harming styles, like weaves, wigs, or chemical straightening.
The 16 women in the Congressional Black Caucus sent Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a letter earlier this month objecting these new bans, stating in part:
“African American women have often been required to meet unreasonable norms as it relates to acceptable standards of grooming in the workplace. Understand that these standards should shift based on each community’s unique and practical needs. New cultural norms and trends naturally change, ensuring that no person feels targeted or attacked based on his or her appearance. We believe the Army’s updated rules and the way they are written fail to recognize this reality.
“Army officials have responded to criticism of the regulation by saying it applies to all soldiers regardless of race, and that they are meant to protect their safety. However, the use of words like “unkempt” and “matted” when referring to traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are offensive and biased. The assumption that individuals wearing these hairstyles cannot maintain them in a way that meets the professionalism of Army standards indicates a lack of cultural sensitivity conducive to creating a tolerant environment for minorities.”
In an interview with NPR, co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America Lori Tharps expressed her problem with the terminology used by the Army to describe African hair, saying:
“I call those, you know, culturally insensitive words. If you understood the backstory of black people and their relationship with their hair in this country, you would stay away from words like matted and unkempt, because they have been used historically to keep somebody from getting a job or allow them to have access to certain institutions even.”
Though she says she understands the need for uniformity, Representative Barbara Lee of California released a statement declaring her intent to stand with the women of the Congressional Black Caucus, saying: “Describing these standards as necessary to ‘maintain uniformity within a military population’ does little more than to further marginalize and label a group of women and their traditional hairstyles as an ‘other.’ Further, it leaves women of color few choices other than to employ an expensive and difficult-to-maintain chemical process to assimilate to these biased standards.”
Army spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Alayne P. Conway says that black women were involved in the process of developing and refining new guidelines, and the group itself was led by a black woman.