- Black female lawmakers are pushing back against Army's updated appearance guidelines
- The new regulations ban many African-American hairstyles
- Army says the regulation is needed to maintain a professional, uniform look among soldiers
- Controversy touches on historic tensions about black hair and white beauty standards
African-American female lawmakers are taking the Army to task for a new ban on a number of ethnic hairstyles, guidelines which some are calling racially discriminatory.
The group from the Congressional Black Caucus wrote Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday urging the military to reconsider the rule.
"Though we understand the intent of the updated regulation is to ensure uniformity in our military, it is seen as discriminatory rules targeting soldiers who are women of color with little regard to what is needed to maintain their natural hair," the letter said.
Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said it had received the letter, appreciated their concerns and "will respond promptly and directly to them."
The Army previously said it rejects any charges of discrimination, especially since black women were involved in helping craft the new guidelines regulating everything from the style of hair parts, the width of braids and how far thick hair can extend from the scalp.
"African American female soldiers were involved in the process of developing the new female hair standards," said Troy Rolan, an Army spokesman. "Not only were nearly 200 senior female leaders and soldiers (which included a representative sample of the Army's populations) part of the decision-making process on the female hair standards, but the group was also led by an African American female."
The Army has faced pushback from some African-American members of the military and black civilian supporters over new guidelines that mandate 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." Army rules ban dreadlocks and twists of any kind as well as styles it views as "unkempt" or "matted."
That type of language rankled the Black Caucus members.
The issue, they say, is that such phrasing implies that ethnic hair that is "natural" or not straightened with heat or chemicals is somehow unruly and must be carefully regulated to fit within white cultural norms.
"The use of words like 'unkempt' and 'matted' when referring to traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are offensive," the lawmakers wrote. "The assumption that individuals wearing these hairstyles cannot maintain them in a way that meets the professionalism of Army standards indicates a lack of cultural sensitivity conducive to creating a tolerant environment for minorities."
In issuing its newest set of appearance guidelines, the Army has found itself entangled in centuries old identity politics that have been a sore point for the African-American community since slavery.