NPR Story
3:12 pm
Thu April 17, 2014

New Military Rules On Hair Create Controversy

There are now more than 17,000 signatures on a new White House petition, calling on the Obama administration to reconsider new Army regulations about hair and grooming.

And the women in the Congressional Black Caucus have also sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, to the same effect.

Because the new rules, AR 670-1 tighten the restrictions on how women can braid and twist their hair, which has drawn criticism from some African-American women in the military.

NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the regulations.

Guest

  • Karen Grigsby Bates, who reports for NPR’s Code Switch team, which covers race, ethnicity and culture.
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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

This is HERE AND NOW.

There are now more than 17,000 signatures on a new White House petition, calling on the Obama administration to reconsider new Army regulations about hair and grooming for men and women. The new rules, called AR 670-1, tighten the restrictions on how women can braid and twist their hair, which has drawn criticism from some African-American women in the military and from the women in the Congressional Black Caucus who have sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, asking him to reconsider the new regulations.

Joining us from NPR West is Karen Grigsby Bates. She reports for NPR's Code Switch team, which covers race, ethnicity, and culture. Karen, welcome.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Thank you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, we want to get to some of the criticism. But first, just explain these new regulations. What do they say exactly and what's the rationale behind them?

BATES: Well, they're basically an update of some things that had been on the books before that they've decided to tighten up a little bit, I think. And the thing that has caught public attention so much is the reaction of black women who have natural hair to the styles that now are allowed because of this new Army or this updated Army regulation. The things that are no longer allowed are things like big twists, multiple braids, anything larger than a quarter of an inch - which if people are listening and they can think about what the tip of an eraser looks like, that's just about a quarter of an inch wide - fancy headbands, dreadlocks, anything with decorations. So if you had - even if you had regulation-size braids but they had beads at the end, no, can't do that.

HOBSON: But we think of the military as a place where you do have to abide by whatever the regulations. You see men walking around with these buzz cuts. Why is this causing such an uproar?

BATES: It's causing an uproar because women of color who wear their hair natural feel that they have been singled out, that the law actually applies to everybody, but if you don't have kinky hair, then it kind of doesn't affect you and it doesn't matter. And what they're saying is we have chosen to wear our hair without straighteners, either chemical straighteners or straightening comb or flat iron whatever, because we feel it's comfortable and it's healthy. And we're being made to feel different and, to a certain a degree, put upon by these constrictions, that our hair grows differently - it grows out, not down - that the Army way of saying, well, if you have long hair and you want to keep it, then you have to be able to put it up in a bun that's above your collar, we'll accept that. They say, you know, with our kind of hair, that doesn't work. So they feel that there's been some cultural insensitivity to their daily reality.

HOBSON: And what's the military said about why they did this in the first place then?

BATES: Well, the military says, basically, we're doing this for two reasons - for safety. You know, your helmet needs to fit properly on your head in case you - in case something happens. They're also saying, hello, it's the Army. They call them uniforms for a reason.

HOBSON: Yeah.

BATES: We want everybody to look relatively the same way. You can be an individual in your off hours, but if you're agreeing to come into our environment and to be part of this organization, then we expect you to look a certain way.

HOBSON: And Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs of the Georgia National Guard told the Army Times that she's been in the military for six years. She's worn her hair natural for much of that time, and it's never interfered with her head gear. So there are plenty of people making the argument that this is not necessary, these regulations. What's the penalty for not following the rules?

BATES: Well, I just got a note from Lt. Col. Elaine Conway, who I've been talking with back and forth about this whole business. And she said that soldiers who violate AR 670-1 may be subject to adverse administrative action, such as counseling or a written reprimand. And they could face charges under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So a soldier could face disciplinary action, ranging from non-judicial punishment to a court marshal.

HOBSON: Karen, we mentioned that the Congressional Black Caucus has sent this letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Has there been a response?

BATES: There has not yet. And, Jeremy, it was a pretty tough letter, Representative Marcia Fudge, who's a Democrat from Ohio and who's currently head of the Congressional Black Caucus - was the principal signatory. And she basically said that while she understood the intent of the upgraded regulations to ensure military uniformity, quote, "it seems as discriminatory rules targeting soldiers who are women of color with little regard to what is needed to maintain their natural hair."

KAREN GRISGBY BATES, BYLINE: Fudge also said that she had personally heard Army personnel refer to natural hair in derogatory terms, that they called natural hair matted and unkempt. And it seems that she feels that that's a value judgment that was based on a racial perception of what quote, unquote, "good hair" should look like.

HOBSON: And is there a larger context here, Karen, about how the Army's relationship with people of color is, in general, right now?

BATES: I think the Army is pretty proud of itself. And it's been lauded considerably for its aggressive outreach to communities of color to say, you know, come work with us. We can give you a skill. We want all of America to help in serving the country, which all of America has been doing for a while, although if you go back to World War II and certainly before then, not always welcomed with open arms.

You realize that the Army was segregated until 1948, and so people of color were often swabbing decks if they were in the Navy or hosing oil up off of the tarmac if they were in the Air Force. That has changed radically over the past several decades to the point where now many sociologists point to the Army as a institution that has encouraged people of color to excel far more than its civilian counterparts.

And, in fact, the Army likes to say often that there's more opportunity within it for people of color than it is for many Fortune 500 companies. So the implications for this, when something like this pops up that says you are being discriminatory toward women of color, puts a little dent in that. And I think what the - what black women who are upset with the updating of the regulations, black women with un-straightened hair - are saying that they should be able to wear their natural hair natural and neat. And the - if when they're not allowed to, it makes them feel as if they're not able to rise to their full potential or, to use an old Army recruiting slogan, to be all that they can be.

HOBSON: NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates from the Code Switch team which covers race, ethnicity and culture. Karen, thanks so much.

BATES: Thank you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And some other stories we're following today, Israel has been largely silent about Russia's intervention in Ukraine. The tiny country with a Russian-Jewish foreign minister seems to want to preserve its good relations with Moscow. Also, as the drought in California persists, the parch region of the Central Valley is seeing some unlikely political alliances forming as farmers pressure the federal government to help solve the water crisis. We'll have details on these and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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