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Army’s ban on twists, other natural hairstyles sparks calls of racial bias

(Courtesy U.S. Army)
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A new U.S. Army regulation that bans an array of natural hairstyles has sparked some backlash, with African American women arguing that the rule has a racial and cultural component.

Released on Monday, Army Regulation 670-1, includes multiple rules that specifically address hairstyles such as cornrows, twists and braids that are popular with African American women. Among the unauthorized styles are dreadlocks and twists, which have been banned since 2005,  and braids must be small in diameter.

Army officials told the Army Times that the revisions were approved after a focus group and a survey of hundreds of senior enlisted women reviewed the changes and that it’s premature to discuss the new regulations, which sought to clarify some rules that were already in place.

The move has prompted a White House petition that has gathered over 10,000 signatures and asks that the Army reconsider the ban. The petition states that 30 percent of women serving in the military are non-white, and “[t]hese new changes are racially biased and the lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent. This policy needs to be reviewed prior to publishing to allow for neat and maintained natural hairstyles.”

African American women are increasingly embracing natural hairstyles and forgoing relaxers.  A recent report by Mintel, a consumer research group showed a 26 percent decline in relaxer sales over the last five years, with an uptick in sales of natural hair products.  The September 2013 report also found that in the past 12 months, nearly three-fourths (70 percent) of Black women say they currently wear or have worn their hair natural (no relaxer or perm), more than half (53 percent) have worn braids, and four out of 10 (41 percent) have worn locks.  Typically, natural hairstyles are often easier to maintain than processed hair.

In an interview with USA Today, Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs, who started the White House petition and wears her hair in two twists, said she is “kind of at a loss now with what to do with my hair.”

“I’ve been in the military six years, I’ve had my hair natural four years, and it’s never been out of regulation. It’s never interfered with my head gear,” Jacobs, of the Georgia National Guard, said.

Some have posted comments to the Facebook page of Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler expressing their discontent:

Essence Magazine hosted a #lunchtimedebate, with some arguing that the ban makes sense:

According to the Army, the regulation “is necessary to maintain uniformity within a military population,” spokesman Troy A. Rolan Sr. told The Washington Post.

“Many hairstyles are acceptable, as long as they are neat and conservative. In addition, headgear is expected fit snugly and comfortably, without bulging or distortion from the intended shape of the headgear and without excessive gaps,” Rolan said. “Unfortunately, some hairstyles do not meet this standard or others listed in AR 670-1. The publishing of the 2014 version helps to clarify the Department of the Army policy for proper wear and appearance of Army uniforms and insignia, as worn by officers and enlisted personnel of the Active Army and the United States (U.S.) Army Reserve, as well as by former Soldiers.”

Here’s a look at the some of the hair regulations outlined by the U.S. Army: