May 1, 2014

(POLITICO) -- The Pentagon is reviewing its hairstyle regulations for black women after the Congressional Black Caucus complained the Army had unfairly singled them out in new rules on soldiers’ appearances.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent a letter Tuesday to caucus chair Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and other members assuring them that no one in the Pentagon meant to “discriminate or disparage” black women in formulating the Army’s new rules.

Fudge thanked him for his quick response.

“Secretary Hagel has committed to careful review of each service’s language and grooming policies to ensure both are clear of offensive language and are respectful of the diversity within our armed forces,” she wrote. “The secretary’s response affirms his commitment to ensuring all individuals are welcomed and can continue to be proud of serving within our armed forces.”

Hagel’s exchange with the black lawmakers followed a ceremony in the Pentagon on Monday in which he, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and many other Defense Department leaders signed its new “Human Goals Charter.” The document, which included major updates, including the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on open service by gays and lesbians, is a full-length statement of how the Pentagon affirms that “people are its most important resource.”

African Americans make up more than 16 percent of the total military force, according to Pentagon records. About 16 percent of its overall troop population is female.

Hagel’s review also will get rolling as the Army continues its withdrawal from the long war in Afghanistan. To prepare for a return to garrison life, commanders are tightening restrictions on personal appearances, including tattoos and hairstyles. The Army has barred sleeve-style tattoos, for example, and what it called “fancy-style” haircuts for men, including the “tear drop,” the “landing strip” or “Mohawk,” and “horseshoe.”

Some examples of new rules for women include allowing bangs — so long as they don’t fall below the eyebrows — and pony tails, as long as they are “centered on the back of the head.” Extensions and wigs are authorized, the Army said, if they conform to the other standards and have the same appearance as natural hair.

What Fudge and her colleagues objected to was the way the Army’s rules described the way black women may and may not wear their hair.

“The use of words like ‘unkempt’ and ‘matted,’ when referring to traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are offensive and biased,” Fudge and her colleagues told Hagel this month. “The assumption that individuals wearing these hairstyles cannot maintain them in a way that meets the professionalism of the Army standards indicates a lack of cultural sensitivity conducive to creating a tolerant environment for minorities.”

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that Hagel has ordered the military services to review their appearance regulations for black women and be sure their “standards are fair and respectful to our diverse force while also meeting our requirements.”


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