NPR Story
4:03 am
Mon April 21, 2014

Army's Updated Rules On Hair Styles Tangle With Race

Originally published on Mon April 21, 2014 6:53 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And the Army has new rules on the dress and appearance of soldiers. The rules clamp down on tattoos, mohawks, long fingernails, dental ornamentation. So, diamond-studded teeth not allowed.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Army is also banning some hairstyles popular among African-American women. The stated goal here is professionalism, but some soldiers and even members of the Congressional Black Caucus are upset, and they are urging the Obama administration to take a second look at the rules.

MONTAGNE: To understand what's behind this stir, our colleague David Greene spoke to Lori Tharps. She teaches journalism at Temple University and co-wrote the book, "Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America."

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Professor Tharps, thanks for joining us on the program. We appreciate you taking the time.

LORI THARPS: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: So let me ask you, the armed forces almost everywhere require some sort of uniformity in dress and appearance. But some of the new rules have really struck a nerve with African-American women and I'm wondering if you can just explain to me why that is.

THARPS: It's really very simple in that the policy itself does not take into consideration the history and culture, as well as the simple, you know, biological makeup of black hair and what it requires. They have effectively deemed inappropriate some of the most effective and popular hairstyles that many of these women wear.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about some of the styles because the Army has banned dreadlocks entirely since 2005, which some people have been pointing out and the Army says that it's now clarifying what sorts of braids, corn rows and twists are allowed when it comes to hairstyles. And I wanted to read directly from one of the updated rules and see if you could talk to me about it.

It's a rule on corn rows and it says, quote, "Corn rows must be of uniform dimension, small in diameter, approximately one-fourth of an inch, show no more than one-eighth inch of scalp between the corn rows and must be tightly rolled or braided to present a neat professional well-groomed appearance." That is a lot of specific language. Talk to me about the problem here and why some African-American women feel that's insensitive and perhaps even racist.

THARPS: I don't think there's too much to be offended by in terms of, you know, there's something wrong with how they're defining corn rows. I think the problem is it takes a little more technique and talent to produce really neat, tight corn rows as described here, whereas almost anybody could make the same kind of look with a two-strand twist. Most black women really understand what those subtle differences are.

I mean, some of the styles they're suggesting aren't efficient at all, for example, doing corn rows is very time consuming. Weaves and wigs are extremely expensive and this two-styles that they outright ban, dreadlocks and twists, are the most efficient and economical styles that a black woman with natural hair can wear. And again, we go back to that idea of uniformity. That is kind of both the burden and the blessing of black hair in the United States of America.

It doesn't conform. It's not uniform, but it can be beautiful and it can conservative, just not in the same way that European hair can.

GREENE: There have been some complaints about a few of the words that the Army has used in describing the types of hairstyles that are banned. They've used words like unkempt, matted. Why has that language angered people?

THARPS: Well, I call those, you know, culturally insensitive words. At the end of the day, you cannot say that they are racist, but if you understood the backstory of black people and their relationship with their hair in this country, you would stay away from words like matted and unkempt because they have been used historically to keep somebody from getting a job or allow them to have access to certain institutions even.

GREENE: Lori Tharps is an associate professor of journalism at Temple University. Professor, thank so much for talking to us.

THARPS: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: We reached an Army spokeswoman for comment. She pointed out the regulations apply to all female soldiers regardless of race. And she said the Army is clarifying old rules that were too vague.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.