AMERICA has always had trouble with black hair. The United States Army is only the latest in a long line of institutions, corporations and schools to restrict it. On March 31, the Army released an updated appearance and grooming policy, known as AR 670-1. It applies to all Army personnel, including students at West Point and those serving in the R.O.T.C. and the National Guard.
No distinctions are made for race or ethnicity, only gender, in that the regulations regarding hair are divided between women and men. But it’s not hard to infer that certain sections pertain specifically to black women, since they refer to hairstyles like cornrows, braids, twists and dreadlocks, severely limiting or banning them outright.
While the Army certainly isn’t the first to impose these kinds of prohibitions, it may be the most egregious example, considering that the 26,000 black women affected by AR 670-1 are willing to die for their country. On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered the entire military to review its hairstyle rules, after the women of the Congressional Black Caucus sent him a letter saying that the Army policy’s language was “offensive” and “biased” and strongly urging him to reconsider it. More than 17,000 people signed a petition submitted to WhiteHouse.gov asking the Obama administration to review the policy.
The bias against black hair is as old as America itself. In the 18th century, British colonists classified African hair as closer to sheep wool than human hair. Enslaved and free blacks who had less kinky, more European-textured hair and lighter skin — often a result of plantation rape — received better treatment than those with more typically African features.
After Emancipation, straight hair continued to be the required look for access to social and professional opportunities. Most black people internalized the idea that their natural hair was unacceptable, and by the early 20th century wore it in straightened styles often achieved with dangerous chemical processes or hot combs, or they wore wigs.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the Black Power movement declared that “black is beautiful” — and not least unstraightened natural black hair. Soon the Afro became a popular style, first at protests and political rallies and eventually on celebrities from Pam Grier to Michael Jackson.
But in many settings, black hair was still a battleground. In the 1980s civil rights groups led boycotts against the Hyatt hotel chain after it terminated a black female employee for wearing cornrows. In 1999, couriers for Federal Express were fired for wearing dreadlocks. And this past fall, 7-year-old Tiana Parker was told her dreadlocks violated her elementary school’s dress code in Tulsa, Okla., and 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke was threatened with expulsion from her private school in Orlando, Fla., because her natural hair was deemed a “distraction.”
If a person doesn’t have black hair, isn’t married to someone with black hair or isn’t raising a child with black hair, this issue may seem like a whole lot of something about nothing. But what these women are demanding is a policy that reflects a basic understanding of black hair. For most black people, hair naturally grows up and out — think of the shape of an Afro — not down. But the Army’s regulations assume that all hair not only grows the same way but can be styled the same way. For example, one permitted hairstyle is a bun. Yet because of the thickness of a lot of black women’s hair, a bun is not always possible unless the hair is put into twists first. But twists and dreadlocks, no matter how narrow and neat, are banned in the policy and labeled “faddish” and “exaggerated.”
Black people around the globe have worn dreadlocks for centuries. They can be easily and neatly worn under a helmet or in a bun. Two-strand twists, a popular option for black female soldiers that look similar to braids but are much easier to style, especially in the field, are versatile and require little maintenance. AR 670-1 does allow women to wear wigs and hair extensions, a suggestion that borders on the ridiculous when considering the time and cost required for upkeep in a salon — let alone in a desert army barracks.
The argument isn’t that the Army does not have the right to enforce a conservative code — this is the Army, after all — but that it must consider the diversity of hair textures. The current policy is the equivalent of a black majority military telling its thousands of white soldiers that they are required to have dreadlocks or Afros.
At a time when the military is trying to attract more women to its ranks — this week, the military’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes, ran a cover story about West Point’s attempt to draw more female cadets — it can’t afford policies that punish those same women for their ethnic features. Secretary Hagel says the military has three months for its review “to ensure standards are fair and respectful.”
Here’s an idea: Why not take a survey of active and retired black servicewomen? Let the courageous women serving our nation contribute to an understanding of what conservative, safe and professional means when it comes to their own hair.
Ayana Byrd and Lori L. Tharps are the authors of “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.”
A version of this article appears in print on May 1, 2014, on Page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: When Black Hair Is Against the Rules. Order Reprints