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US Army’s new grooming standards: Is it racially biased?

The U.S. Army is coming under fire for changes to its appearance and grooming standards, which some say discriminates against black women who wear their hair natural.

THE STREAM Team posted:
Proposed updates to Army grooming policies are being called into question over its ban on natural hairstyles common among women of color.
Proposed updates to Army grooming policies are being called into question over its ban on natural hairstyles common among women of color.(Patrick Kane/AP)

Army Regulation 670-1 has not been published or made official yet, but the new rules were detailed in a PowerPoint presentation that was leaked on March 20.

Among the grooming regulations are updated restrictions on how women soldiers can wear their hair. An example from the Army’s PowerPoint is shown below:

  1. Within and outside of the Army, women of color have been calling the guidelines racially biased. A White House petition has amassed more than 3,000 signatures to date requesting that the Army reconsider:
  2. These new changes are racially biased and the lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent. This policy needs to be reviewed prior to publishing to allow for neat and maintained natural hairstyles.
  3. Opponents of the new policies say they specifically target women of color who wear their hair natural. Natural is defined as any hair that has not been chemically processed to alter its texture.

    Unauthorized hairstyles now include twists, dreadlocks, Afros and braids that are more than a quarter-inch thick – styles commonly worn by many African-American women.
    After the new measures take effect, soldiers who wear these hairstyles will have to remove them or cover them with wigs or extensions if they do not want to face administrative discipline.
  4. Army veteran “Tonya” [name has been changed to protect identity], who has dreadlocks, spoke to The Stream about her opposition to the new rules, which she called “deliberate.”
  5. “It’s very targeted because we all know who they’re talking about even though they never explicitly say the world ‘black’ or ‘African-American.’ We all know who typically wears these types of hairstyles and then they went as far as to include pictures of black women in the PowerPoint.”
  6. The updates to grooming regulations were approved on March 6 by Secretary of the Army John McHugh. The Stream reached out to the Army with questions regarding the new grooming guidelines, and was referred to previous statements made by Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler.
  7. “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,” said Chandler’s statement.

  8. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, African-American women represent nearly a third of all women in the armed forces and enlist at higher rates than any other demographic.

    “Tonya” says, from her observation, the majority of black women in the Army wear their hair natural. She noted that especially while deployed, women don’t always have access to tools that would allow hair to be maintained by straighteners.
    In the photo below, a blogger provides tips for women soldiers on how to maintain professional, natural hair while serving.
  9. “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,” “Tonya” said. “When you’re in Iraq, these hairstyles serve the purpose to protect you.”
  10. Some soldiers have pointed to what they say are inconsistencies in how grooming rules are applied. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense released regulations allowing turbans, headscarves and beards to be worn while in uniform to ensure protection of religious freedom for service members of diverse faiths.

    The Army did not respond to questions regarding whether cultural considerations were made for racial and ethnic minorities.
  11. According to market research firm Mintel, 36% of all African-American women said they wore their hair natural in 2011.
  12. Furthermore, in the past 12 months, nearly three-fourths (70%) of Black women say they currently wear or have worn their hair natural (no relaxer or perm), more than half (53%) have worn braids, and four out of 10 (41%) have worn locks.
    1. The Army has yet to publish the full regulation, but “Tonya” says the message sent by the proposed rules is clear.
    2. “This is how I was born, what my hair does naturally. 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.”
    3. What do you think? Should the Army adjust hair guidelines to consider hair textures of ethnic minorities?

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