Pentagon vows to untwist black hairstyle controversy

Posted at 6:06 PM, Apr 30, 2014
and last updated 2014-04-30 18:06:09-04

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Pentagon will review its polices on hairstyles following backlash from African-American soldiers, who said the Army’s revised rules are racially and culturally biased.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has notified Congress that he has directed his deputy to “work with the service secretaries and the military chiefs to review their respective policies, to address the issues raised by members of Congress about grooming standards, particularly for African-American females,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said this week.

Over the next month, the military will take a close look at the “the definitions of authorized and prohibited hairstyles contained in each of their respective policies and revise any offensive language,” Kirby said.

“During the next three months, each service will review their hairstyle policies as they pertain to African-American women to ensure standards are fair and respectful of our diverse force, while also meeting our military service’s requirements,” he said.

Hagel will tweak Pentagon policies accordingly after the reviews are completed, Kirby added.

The latest twist in the hairstyle saga follows an uproar over the Army’s new grooming guidelines.

Those rules require such things 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.”

Current Army rules ban dreadlocks and twists of any kind as well as styles it views as “unkempt” or “matted.”

That type of language rankled African-American soldiers, their supporters and the female members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who said the guidelines force African-American women with “natural” hair textures — those unaltered by heat or chemicals — to either cut or straighten their roots in order to conform to the Army’s rules and mainstream cultural standards.

One African-American female soldier started an online White House petition, which received more than 13,000 signatures and is no longer on the website.

The Army’s rules also touched on centuries old cultural identity politics that have been a sensitive issue for the black community since slavery.

During that time, and for the generations that followed, straighter hair texture and lighter skin complexion was used to classify which slaves were more valuable and seen as more attractive, African-American scholars noted.

Those values, once internalized, damaged self-esteem and were perpetuated within the black community for years, those experts said.

The Army had previously rejected criticism of its policies as discriminatory since African-American women helped craft the new regulations. Those guidelines regulate the style of hair parts, braid width and hair thickness.

The female members of the Congressional Black Caucus also wrote Hagel earlier this month criticizing the Army’s new guidelines as “discriminatory rules targeting soldiers who are women of color with little regard to what is needed to maintain their natural hair.”

Those who objected to the regulations applauded Hagel’s intervention.

“Members of the CBC appreciate Secretary Hagel for his prompt response to our letter and for seriously considering our concerns,” chairwoman Rep. Chair Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, said in a written statement. “The secretary’s response affirms his commitment to ensuring all individuals are welcomed and can continue to be proud of serving within our armed forces.”