Folks of a certain age or background will all be familiar with a certain phrase: “There are three ways to do things – the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way.” This reflects the fact that the armed forces have their own specific rules and regulations for every situation, and deviation is simply not allowed. This is intended to reinforce unity and cohesion, but is well known for creating localized situations that are the exact opposite (and gave birth to the also well known “snafu”; if you’re not familiar with that one look it up, I’ll wait).
The reason I bring this up is because of the Army’s new regulations on dress and appearance. According to a recent report on NPR, these regulations “clamp down on tattoos, mohawks, long fingernails, [and] dental ornamentation.”
The report also notes that “[t]he 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.”
Before I go off on a rant about this, let’s take a look at each sides arguments as expressed in the report, and let me also note that I have done no deep investigation of this issue, simply listened to this one report and am offering a completely and (clearly) uninformed opinion. Also I am sure I will be receiving more than a few comments regarding a white man weighing in on matters of African American female hairstyles, so I would like to go on the record as stating that I will completely ignore any such racist and sexist attacks.
So what is the argument against these regulations? According to Lori Tharps, who teaches journalism at Temple University and co-wrote “”Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America”, the issues are essentially 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.”
Have to say, straight out the gate I’m less than impressed. Most of these arguments seem at best irrelevant and at worst hyperbolically pointless. To the best of my knowledge, the Army doesn’t take into account anyone’s history or culture, outside of the bare minimum for religious observation, when making regulations. That’s kind of the point. Everyone is supposed to be brutally equal, as close as possible, both for fairness and unit cohesion. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they just stopped using the terms “mick” and “hymie” just last week. The issue of biological makeup is relevant and salient, and worth exploring in more depth, however.
Unfortunately(and this may be the fault of the restricted medium of the radio interview) it seems that the question of biology only comes in as a matter of convenience. For example, when discussing the new regulations regarding corn rows, Ms. Tharps states that:
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.
Aaaand again I take issue. I personally have very curly hair (see above. Now imagine that all over my head.) Other guys I know have very straight hair. Believe it or not, a high and tight looks like crap on me, but it’s regulation. A cue ball doesn’t look a lot better, but it’s regulation. I’m not suggesting I have the same issues as an African American woman might, but again, this isn’t about convenience, it’s about whether or not the regulations can be met without being an undue burden. Joining the Army comes at significant costs, and personal expression is one of them.
Finally there’s the issue of the words the Army has used to describe the banned hairstyles, specifically “words like unkempt [and] matted”. Ms. Tharps describes these as “culturally insensitive words” due to the “backstory of black people and their relationship with their hair in this country”. Having not read the regulations I don’t know if they only and specifically address the hairstyles most common to African Americans or if they are referring to my beloved mohawk as well, but again this seems a case of “the Army way”. Even Ms. Thaps admits “at the end of the day, you cannot say that they are racist”, and this seems to me a case of oversensitivity and taking offense where none is intended or justified. But honestly? If this were the entirety of the issue I’d say just change the wording and be done with it. It’s not important to the core issue for the Army, and it is important to the people it affects.
And speaking of the Army, let’s take a look at their reply. According to Renee Montagne, “We reached an Army spokeswoman for comment. She pointed out the regulations apply to all female soldiers regardless of race.” Well la-de-da. That’s the moral equivalent of saying they’ve established a regulation tampon for use by all soldiers, regardless of gender. I wanted to take the Army’s side, if for no other reason than because I saw little to no merit in the opposition’s case, but this? This is a case of being your own worst enemy. Which is, after all, the Army way.