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.
“After all my years of service, I felt like I had a target on my back. I walked a very tight line, but my convictions were more important to me than a paycheck.”
—Staff Sgt. Chaunsey Logan
An Army directive, issued in February, adjusted its grooming policies related to allow dreadlocks—which had been banned since 2005.
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.’”
Before, the Army’s vague definition of dreadlocks—including controversial terms like “unkempt” and “matted”—allowed women with neatly groomed locs to bypass the regulation.
“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.
Hundreds of soldiers were faced with a dilemma: Cut their hair, be reprimanded or unenlist.
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.
“If the person is Rastafarian, they have much firmer ground for claiming discrimination because it’s generally accepted that they are a part of the religion,” says attorney Arthur R. Ehrlich of the Chicago-based Goldman & Ehrlich law firm, which specializes in employment law and discrimination. Proving race-based discrimination, he says, is trickier because “hairstyles are not considered as characteristics associated with race.”
In late 2016, a federal judge ruled that employees and applicants don’t have a right to wear dreadlocks after a young woman sued Alabama-based Catastrophe Management Solutions for racial discrimination. The insurance company rescinded her job offer after she declined to cut her locs. The EEOC, which represented the applicant, argued “dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.”
In a 3-0 decision, however, the court disagreed.
“The fact that I can serve my country with my hair the way God intended it but be denied a job when I return shows just how much work there is left to do.”
—Staff Sgt. Chaunsey Logan
“In the military and civilian world, the ones making these decisions are those who will never have the hair texture or cultural background to understand,” says retired Sgt. Major Donnell Johns. Johns fielded the concerns of many servicewomen, including Andrews, about how to navigate the dreadlocks ban.“They don’t understand that dreadlocks, like many other black hairstyles, are deeply ingrained in cultural and ethnic identity.”
After fighting to keep her dreadlocks, Logan, who has served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that she refuses to take up the battle again in the corporate world. “I rather go back to war than go through that process again,” she says. “The fact that I can serve my country with my hair the way God intended it but be denied a job when I return shows just how much work there is left to do.”
For now, the battle over dreadlocks in the Army may be won, but the war is far from over. Andrews and Nwamokobia have paired up again to take on the only military branch where a dreadlocks ban remains: the Navy. After initial talks, they plan to tackle the Navy’s ban the same way they did the Army: through education. The goal is to enlighten Navy personnel and the public about their ease of use and necessity for black women.
“We are currently working on a video for the Navy’s ban on locs,” says Nwamokobia. “With the military as the role model, we plan on continuing on to corporate America in hopes to continue the momentum of positive and inclusive change.”
Despite a more progressive military, Andrews’ reserved smile fades amid her concern over the hundreds of dreadlocked soldiers who will eventually return to civilian life. But she’s “prepared to fight against stereotypes with the same vigor for women outside the military as those within.”
Even if, for her, it was too late.
Andrews, like many other servicewomen, cut her locs prior to the Army’s reversal. While she’s already growing them back, dreadlocks won’t be formally accepted until next year.