First Lt. Whennah Andrews of the U.S. Army National Guard tries to hide her braces while showing off her smile. But four years since first advocating against grooming regulations that barred soldiers from wearing natural hairstyles, her smile hints at relief over one of the final steps in the fight for acceptance.
A decade-old ban on dreadlocks is finally coming to an end.
The policy that banned all natural hairstyles, called AR 670-1, first leaked online in 2014.
It outlawed twists, braids, cornrows and Afros—styles commonly associated with black women. Andrews first sent them to me before the revisions went public, and after our story sparked months of outrage—including an open letter from the Congressional Black Caucus (pdf) and a review ordered by the Pentagon—the Army reversed course.
It marked a significant victory for many black female soldiers.
But Andrews wasn’t one of them. Despite the Army’s reversal, the ban on dreadlocks remained.
“It was a setback,” she says. “There was attention paid to other styles like cornrows and twists, but a lot of people ignored dreadlocks because the mindset was, ‘Well, they’ve been banned already anyway.’”
“Locs being unclean and unkempt is a stereotype that impacts the men and women who wear them,” says popular beauty vlogger Nikky Nwamokobia. In a YouTube video, Andrews and Nwamokobia dispel common myths associated with dreadlocks’ cleanliness and ease of use in the military.
“It was important for the Army to see that, for many women, locs are their only option to maintain hair without using harsh chemical relaxers, weaves or wigs,” Nwamokobia says.
Staff Sgt. Chaunsey Logan of Fort Stewart, Ga., was also one of those soldiers. The 16-year soldier never had any issue since first locking her hair in 2011. But the natural-hair ban meant added scrutiny. After refusing to cut her locs, she faced a dishonorable discharge that would have affected her eligibility for work and education benefits under the GI Bill.
“After all my years of service, I felt like I had a target on my back,” she says. “I walked a very tight line, but my convictions were more important to me than a paycheck.”
She was prepared for the worst, but a chance decision to style her locs in a bun during her appeal allowed her to exploit a loophole in the policy. Her hair now looked like Senegalese twists, which are authorized under AR 670-1. An examination of her hair right there in the hearing room determined that Logan was in compliance with the guidelines.
“It shows you just how fickle the regulation was,” she says. “To them, it was just hair, but for me it represented who I am as a black woman.”
But even as the military, one of the most conservative institutions in the country, develops more progressive stances on hair, a return to civilian life may invite the same stigmas that dreadlocked servicewomen face while enlisted.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employees face an uphill battle claiming race-based employment discrimination over their dreadlocks. Even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects against workforce discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin, hairstyles aren’t included.
Sources: Kenya Downs (The Root)