Some see bias in Army's ban on black styles

By: Matt McGovern Email
By: Matt McGovern Email
Dreadlocks, braids and cornrows are regulated.

The U.S. Army's new ban on many types of ethnic hairstyles has African-American women who wear their coifs in dreadlocks, braids and cornrows in a twist.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (CNN) - The U.S. Army's new ban on many types of ethnic hairstyles has African-American women who wear their coifs in dreadlocks, braids and cornrows in a twist.

The Army's regulations stipulate such guidance as hair "must be of uniform dimension, small in diameter (approximately ¼ inch), show no more than 1/8 (inch) of the scalp between the braids."

Dreadlocks "against the scalp or free-hanging" are banned. "Unkempt" or "matted" braids and cornrows are also considered dreadlocks and "are not authorized," according to the regulations that were updated this month.

It's that type of language, words like "unkempt" and "matted," that read to some African Americans, as code for racial bias.

The updates in appearance standards were crafted, in part, with the help of African-American female soldiers and are intended to clarify the professional look of soldiers, said Troy Rolan, an Army spokesman.

Previous regulations did not specifically address things such as braid widths or numbers, or the definition of twist styles.

If soldiers aren't happy, they can go through a formal process to request changes to the hairstyle regulations, the Army said.

The rules' conciseness isn't the problem, say some African-American women and black studies scholars.

The problem, they say, is a perception that ethnic hair that is "natural" or not straightened with heat or chemicals is somehow unruly, unkempt and must be carefully regulated to fit within white cultural norms.

Mandating what should be done with black hair is a particularly sensitive matter.

During slavery and for generations after, hair texture, along with skin complexion, was used to classify which slaves were more valuable, given jobs in the master's house rather than the field, and, by default, deemed beautiful.

Straighter hair, lighter skin and features that looked white were considered preferred traits, African-American scholars noted.

Those values were internalized and perpetuated within the black community for years in a way that was particularly damaging to the self-esteem of black women, African American scholars said.

Black pride and natural hair movements have emphasized that all hair types and the rainbow of skin hues are all beautiful.

However, the Army's regulations, some natural hair advocates and African American scholars fear, might suggest to black soldiers that their tresses must be straightened or closely cropped in order to fit in and be valued.

That type of pressure is "both unfair and racially biased," said Imani Perry, an African-American studies professor at Princeton University.

That type of pressure is "both unfair and racially biased," Perry said adding that the Army conformity isn't absolute because female soldiers are allowed to wear their hair long.


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