WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday ordered the American military to review its policies concerning hairstyles popular with black women, telling critics of new Army regulations banning large cornrows, twists and dreadlocks that he takes “very seriously” concerns that military rules on hair have unfairly targeted black women.
Responding to a complaint lodged by the 16 women of the Congressional Black Caucus, Mr. Hagel said he had given the secretaries and military leaders of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines three months to review comprehensive military regulations as they pertain to black women “to ensure standards are fair and respectful of our diverse force.”
Mr. Hagel’s order raises the possibility that the Pentagon will go beyond the initial request of the black caucus that he overturn the Army’s new hair rules. Instead of looking only at the new Army regulations, a Pentagon spokesman said, Mr. Hagel is “opening the aperture” on all of the services, which black servicewomen have said for decades have forced them to conform to norms based on the hair of white women.
Black women have said that a lack of understanding about the roots of black hair is part of the reason for the Army regulations, which went into effect at the end of March. While black hair comes in all textures, much of it is very curly, making it difficult, unless chemically straightened, to pull into a bun or to let hang loose in a neat, uniform way.
“Members of the CBC appreciate Secretary Hagel for his prompt response to our letter and for seriously considering our concerns,” Representative Marcia L. Fudge, Democrat of Ohio and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement. She said Mr. Hagel’s response “affirms his commitment to ensuring all individuals are welcomed and can continue to be proud of serving in our armed forces.”
Mr. Hagel also ordered the military to review the definitions of authorized and prohibited hairstyles and scrub those definitions of “offensive language,” responding to complaints from servicewomen and the women of the black caucus that the Army’s new regulations include the words “unkempt” and “matted” in reference to braids, cornrows and dreadlocks.
Army officials initially said that the new regulations simply clarified existing ones by specifically describing hairstyles that were prohibited because of a need for uniformity among troops and because of safety concerns. The Army also said those new regulations had been cleared by a focus group that included black women in the Army, but it declined to give their names or make them available for comment.
The issue generated intense news media interest after several black servicewomen complained about the new regulations, and said they were already going into contortions to meet existing military rules concerning their hair. In particular, some critics were incensed because the new Army
The issue generated intense news media interest after several black servicewomen complained about the new regulations, and said they were already going into contortions to meet existing military rules concerning their hair. In particular, some critics were incensed because the new Army regulations prohibited hairstyles that used the soldiers’ natural hair, while largely allowing wigs and hair weaves. For instance, “natural hair is authorized,” an Army statement explaining the regulations said, but only “so long as it meets the standards” of the new regulations. That statement, critics said, implies that there is something wrong with black women’s natural hair.
“I’m pleased that the secretary responded in such a forthright manner,” said Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, who first brought the issue before the black caucus. But she added, “We have to be vigilant until we have a final conclusion.”