The U.S. Army’s new uniform and grooming regulations, which ban Afros and thick braids, among other styles regularly worn by black women, are being seen as racially-biased.
On March 20 — less than a week before it was designated to be released — the U.S. Army’s revisions to the uniform and insignia regulations — Army Regulation 670-1 — leaked online, showing that the Army was looking to return to older uniform codes.
In 2006, in anticipation of a major increase in service numbers, the Army softened its stance on issues such as tattooing.
The leaked PowerPoint presentation has caused a stir with its updated guidelines for female soldiers’ hair. According to the new guidelines, “twists” — or locks of hair twisted around each other in a two-strand braid — dreadlocks, Afros and braids that are more than a quarter-inch thick are all prohibited. The move has been read as being racially-motivated, as these styles are regularly worn by black women to help manage their hair, which tends to be thick and naturally curly. The PowerPoint presentation primarily used black models to demonstrate these hair styles, reinforcing the notion that this ruling was discriminatory.
Soldiers that have these hairstyles would be forced to remove them or cover them with wigs or extensions to avoid administrative discipline. According to Pew Research Center, black women make up a third of the nation’s female fighting force and enlist at a higher rate than any other socioeconomic group.
“Tonya,” an Army veteran who spoke to Al-Jazeera America’s “The Stream” on condition of anonymity, argues that field deployment does not afford black women the luxury of straightening their hair. The majority of black female service members keep their hair natural, without the use of chemical relaxers or perms, she noted.
“I don’t think they see the health behind it. Getting these extensions, these braids, can put a lot of stress and strain on our hair. When you’re in Iraq, these hairstyles serve the purpose to protect you,” said “Tonya.”
Due to the nature of black hair, it tends to grow outward and stand on end, instead of falling flat. This makes it difficult for hair worn naturally to be loose or even collected into a bun. According to the research firm Mintel, in the past 12 months, 70 percent of all black women have or currently do wear their hair naturally. The inferred message from the Army’s new regulation has been taken by many to mean that the Army does not find it not acceptable for black women to wear their hair as it is.
“This is how I was born, what my hair does naturally,” added “Tonya.” “So what they’re telling me is that people who look like me, people who have these characteristics, don’t belong in the military. You can’t tell me that we’re an army of one or that we’re a brotherhood and a sisterhood, that we all bleed army green, if just one group of people’s natural look is considered unacceptable. That isolates me.”
In a previous statement, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler argued, “We’ve gone through a series of revisions and briefings to try to find something that’s reasonable, affordable and feasible within the Army that aligns itself with our professional responsibilities.”
As of April 3, the petition to have this issue addressed by the president has received 10,525 of the 100,000 signatures it needs by April 19.
Other changes to the uniform code include the requirement that male soldiers’ sideburns do not go past the bottom of the ear canal. Additionally, tattoos are not allowed on the face, head, neck or hands, and only four tattoos or less are allowed on the forearms and calves and they must be smaller than the soldier’s hand. Sleeve tattoos and umbrellas with field or utility dress are now banned. Enlisted soldiers that violate the tattoo policy will be excluded from commissioning, and commanders are ordered to do annual inspections for new tattoos and brandings on prohibited regions of the body.