Military Says Black Female Soldiers Can Have Braids and Twists Again

Illustration for article titled Military Says Black Female Soldiers Can Have Braids and Twists Again

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took time from his busy schedule to say that black women in the military could have braids and twists again.

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Back in April, Hagel and the military came under fire after releasing restrictive rules surrounding women's’ hair that specifically interfered with African Americans ability to care for their coils. A number of soldiers of color kicked off an online petition and enlisted the Congressional Black Caucus to champion their cause in Congress and it looks like their outcry worked.

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On Thursday, in a letter to the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus Rep. Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, Hagel wrote, according to the New York Times, that the Army and the Air Force would loosen their follicle restrictions to allow cornrows, braids and other hairstyles that make life easier for women of color starved for hair products in far-flung places. He added that the regulation material would remove problematic language like "'matted and unkempt" to describe hair. The Marine Corps will reportedly reassess their personal hair policies this summer.

“These changes recognize that traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are often necessary to meet our unique needs, and acknowledges that these hairstyles do not result in or reflect less professionalism or commitment to the high standards required to serve within our armed forces,” Ms. Fudge said.

The movement of explaining blackness to non-black people who mean to manage people of color continues ...

Image via Getty.

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DISCUSSION

As a women of color currently serving her term as an enlisted member of the United States military, I thought I might comment. They shaved my head in boot camp because I refused to have my hair cornrowed, just as I refuse to chemically relax my hair. Not to put too fine a point on it, I did this voluntarily, and I understood the reason for cutting all recruits hair at the beginning of basic training was to reduce the recruit to a blank identity and build up a new identity within the unit as part of the indoctrination process and to form unit cohesion—creepy, no? My scalp is extremely sensitive to the point of distraction after many years of chemical treatment (my white, adoptive parents had no idea how to deal with ethnic hair, and used chemicals to make it more manageable for them when I was far too young, and up until my twenties I had a scalp frequently covered with sores). So this military policy, and my decisions are pretty rational at that point. It is unbelievable the ration of shit I received during the period of time I spent growing it out to meet military standards. The problem stems, not from any real overtly racist motivation of the policy as it stands today. The sad truth of it is that many of the top brass in this institution are predominately white, and may not recognize that people of color do have different hair that cannot conform to these standards without going to considerable efforts at considerable costs, not based on any deficiency, or superiority, or even a need to "feel special". It—the hair—just is. Not recognizing that using an arbitrary white aesthetic standard to apply as default is untenable when taking the broader view of the military's primary mission as it becomes a more equitable and diverse force. Because of that specifically it is important to recognize that the standards, as they were written, were just that: an arbitrary white aesthetic. Some of the reasoning behind the difference between men and women's uniform standards stem from the military's history of institutional used sexism that mirrors a broader, historical cultural sexism—after all, we are discussing an intuition that holds "tradition" as one of its core values. I personally wouldn't care if they buzzed all military service men and women's hair. But there are some, men and women, who would protest that as well—and realistically speaking, this will never happen. I have never seen a service woman's hair style, of any ethnicity, get in the way of their gear, although I've seen women and men, of all ethnicities, wear their hair in styles that border on "unprofessional". This is mitigated by the fact that they supply covers (hats), gas masks, helmets, SCBAs, et al, for military operations in many sizes. The new uniform standards in regards to hair are a step in the right direction. And, for the record, wigs and weave are allowed for women in my particular branch, and worn but women of all ethnicities. Sorry about the super long post. I just thought it might be appropriate to post a reasonable and nuanced first hand experience.