Othering Locs in the Military

Over the past 12 years, my locs have grown into a very noticeable feature. Strangers frequently ask how long I have been growing them and compliment me on their appearance. When I wear them down, they almost reach my butt. I am known to refer to my locs as The Hair. They have evolved into at least a portion of my self-identity, and I cannot imagine my life without them.

It was not always this way. When I decided to go natural, it was during my undergraduate years when I became fascinated with Afrocentric spoken word venues, racial concerns, and generally learning to become proud of my Blackness. I do not believe I ever was not proud, but developmentally, my early 20s were times of discovery and acceptance. (I prefer to refer to my teenage years as my stage of chaos and confusion.)

I stopped putting relaxers in my hair, and eventually cut it off altogether. As a result, I wore a very low boy’s cut for some time. My hair wasn’t even long enough to comb out into a mini Afro. I often wore variously colored wraps over my hair when out in public. Needless to write, I have no pictures of this very awkward time period when I felt very good about my decision while also being conscious of how the rest of the world would view a woman with no hair.

My awkward, just beginning to grow out my natural hair phase was short. Eventually, the hair became long enough to twist and after that moment, it was just the patience of allowing them to take on their new form. And without the chemicals found in relaxers, my hair grew quickly, long, and dare I say it…beautiful. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t concern myself with persons who don’t find natural hair beautiful. Who are they to judge?

Back in April, there were several headlines asserting that banning loc hairstyles, as found in newly published professional appearance standards for persons in the United States military, is racially biased. However, the banning of locs is not some new phenomenon, as can be exemplified from the following excerpt dated at least 5 years ago:

Dreadlocks (unkempt, twisted, matted individual parts of hair) are prohibited in uniform or in civilian clothes on duty. Army Regulation 670-1  

I am not aware of any petitions concerning the above regulations 5 years ago. However, when the revised manual was released essentially banning locs (I prefer the term locs to dreadlocks, but that is an entirely different blog), twists, and large cornrows, there was considerable criticism and pushback. My guess is that the goal of neat, maintained natural hairstyles struck the right nerves and the right number of advocates managed to gather enough supportive momentum to reach the resulting policy-changing media frenzy. 

Recently, military regulations (the Marine Corps remaining an exception) have been revised to expand their definitions of acceptable hairstyles to include cornrows, braids, and “other hairstyles.” Of importance, the phrase “matted and unkempt” is being eliminated as recognized offensive language. The chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus has publicly stated that the traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are often necessary to meet unique needs, and do not reflect less professionalism or commitment to high standards as expected within the armed forces.

This is a win…for natural hair wearers generally, but not necessarily us loc wearers. Allow me to read between the lines. Cornrows and braids specifically are named as acceptable. This means twists and locs are discretionary. Moreover, the elimination of “matted and unkempt” makes the natural hair wearers feel more accepted, but this acceptance separates the natural hair wearers from the loc wearers. Here is a news flash. Some loc wearers prefer their hair matted and unkempt, and do not find it offensive for others to believe it so. Again, who are these people to judge?

My problem and frustration with this dialogue of banning locs are the many misconceptions that surfaced as a result. Yes, certain celebrities have made locs popular to the non-Bob Marley influenced crowd in recent years, but the hairstyle itself has never been a fad. Locs did not start with Bob Marley or Jamaica. Bob Marley made them popular, yes, but locs were worn all over the country a very long time before Marley was born. What do you think people of (more directly) African descent did before relaxers?

The fact of the matter is that African Americans have different hair. I know we’re in a country where a melting pot is the ideal, but I am not going to pretend I can just hang out at a beach for a week at a time without hating my hair by day 2. It takes forever to wash bits of sand out of hair locs. I cannot just shampoo and rinse after a day at the beach. Trust me on this one. I also am not going to pretend like the many years I spent relaxing my hair each month and changing my hairstyle each week was a walk on the beach. It takes hours in a hair salon for an African American woman to meet European hair standards. I know this from personal experience.

I concur that natural hairstyles are appropriate for the unique needs of African American women’s hair. I spend almost no time in hair salons now. However, I do not judge African American women who do not wear their hair in its natural form. The stigma that locs are not professional or somehow substandard is a pervasive, identity challenging experience that starts in infancy when complete strangers as well as family members coo over “baby hair” and chastise “nappy roots.”

We cannot always be babies. We must grow up.

We must start interacting with the outside world where European beauty reigns in the media and everyday social interactions. I am in the professional world. When I show up to work with unkempt locs rather than neat freshly retwisted ones, there are whispered discussions from my co-workers. These co-workers are of African descent and even some are natural hair wearers. I dream of a world where I do not have to constantly groom my locs in order to fulfill my everyday work tasks without someone else’s opinion of my personally accepted appearance.

As far as military regulations go, I say if the hairstyle does not impair work performance, let it be. If it does, then follow the appropriate procedure in terms of performance review and allow the person to make the decision. It would be silly to wear certain hairstyles while in active combat, but the military is full of work positions that do not involve specific performance demands that might be impaired by certain hairstyles.

As far as my hair being extreme or a distraction…that is an opinion – not a fact. My hair is different, but I don’t find it extreme nor do I find it to be a distraction. If someone unfamiliar with locs is awestruck, that is a reflection of how stagnant we are as a country regarding cultural differences. It does not make it an inarguable fact.

Long loc wearers like myself aren’t joining military ranks in large droves anyway so this really is a minority of a minority perspective. Still, I must note that as a long loc wearer in the process of obtaining a needed professional degree that does not require the restrictive uniform of someone in combat, it is the United States military’s loss not mine.

 - Written by Sy Pryor  

No comments:

Post a Comment