A former psychiatrist for the army speaks out about her own experience.
NOTE: This post is written by a former US Army psychiatrist who witnessed and endured racism over her hair in the Army first-hand.
CREDIT: KRISTIE MITCHELL
The Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia covers every aspect of soldiers’ grooming and appearance — from fingernail length to tattoos. Last month, the Armyproposed updates to this regulation that scrutinize African American female hairstyles more than ever before. Previously AR 670-1 only briefly commented on uniquely African American hair styles. It banned “dreadlocks” for being “unkempt, twisted, matted…hair”. While cornrows were authorized as long as “conservative”.
Now, greater numbers of African American women are allowing their hair to remain natural, and the proposed regulation microanalyzes these hair styles (braids, twists, cornrows, and locs) and effectively eliminates many of the natural styles African American service women have been wearing for years.
I am an African American woman, a Psychiatrist, and a former US Army Major, and I am dismayed by this.
When I read the regulation and endured words like “unkempt” and “matted” used to define my natural hair, I was reminded of the pain and humiliation I, too, endured five years ago before I voluntarily departed the Army. Since then I’ve enjoyed the simple dignity of wearing my natural hair to work in a neat and professional manner.
The Army recruited me during medical school. They paid for all four years of my medical school training. Then gave me world-class residency training at the flagship military medical centers of the time: Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda National Naval Medical Center. All totaled, the military likely devoted close to one million dollars preparing me to provide expert medical care to its service members.
While I maintained my primary focus on my medical education, soldier training, and physical fitness, the nagging question that pulled at my attention day after day was ‘how do I keep my tightly curled hair within Caucasian-based hair standards?’ Though most African American service women struggle silently, it is a daily battle for thousands of these women trying to stay on the right side of an increasingly convoluted hair regulation.
For years, like many African American service women, I attempted a straight hair style, which required me to chemically and thermally straighten (i.e., relax) my curls on a regular basis. Other African American women attached hair extensions to their scalps to attain longer straight hair or braids. In either case we’ve dedicated time, financial, and emotional resources fostering an appearance we hope will escape scrutiny. Ultimately we’ve exposed ourselves to countless chemicals and techniques well-known to cause scalp damage. Many of these chemicals are now suspected of disrupting the normal functioning of our hormones. After years of straightening my hair into submission, and watching it fall out in retaliation, it occurred to me that I could attain peace by cutting my hair off.
The “big chop” as it is known in the African American community, allowed me the freedom to actually wear my hair in its natural state. But the compromise was that I could leave very little hair on my head. For years I wore my hair close to my scalp like my African American male counterparts and my hair became a non-issue – a very important thing, as my busy schedule in the hospital left no excess energy to devote to this hair riddle. Over time, though, I discovered a style that would allow my hair the dignity of its natural state and permit the styling flexibility my Caucasian female counterparts took for granted.
This began my journey with locs.
In the loc’ed state, my hair met all the Army’s professionalism standards — it did not touch my collar, my Army headgear and masks fit properly, and my hair was as well groomed as any of my other female colleagues. I felt the riddle had been solved. So effortlessly did my hair fall within the Army hair regulations that I finally had no greater hair-anxiety than my Caucasian colleagues. I went about my true business of doctoring and soldiering with confidence and freedom.
Then I deployed to Iraq. In the midst of war, while I was doctoring in a combat zone, a lower ranking soldier identified my locs as “dreadlocked” and therefore, by Army definition “unkempt and matted” hair. He notified my supervisor who gave me an official (though somewhat apologetic) reprimand for not meeting hygiene standards. The bitter irony was not only did my hair fit all the required professionalism standards, but it was very easy to keep clean and neat.
After the reprimand, I made one futile attempt to hide my locs by covering them with a wig (an authorized option). But this was too distracting, and with temperatures soaring to 140 degrees daily, one could imagine that option did not last long. So I conceded. I cut off my locs. I returned to the neutral state where no natural hair was acceptable natural hair. But the peace was uneasy, to say the least.
When I returned from war, I filed official requests to change the regulation. I wrote letters appealing my case, I sent pictures showing my hair firmly within regulation, but my efforts fell on deaf ears. It was not until I beseeched my congressman, Ciro Rodriguez, that I finally got a response from the Army. It came two years after I was forced to cut my locs and two months after I chose to leave the Army. I received a simple letter from the Deputy of the Human Resources Policy Directorate stating that it appeared that my loc’ed hair was not in violation after all.
The concession came too late. I had already left, already realized that I did not have to continue to suffer these indignities to practice my profession. While I loved caring for soldiers, the personal toll of being a psychiatrist for the Army was too great a burden. So now I’m using my training to serve the civilian healthcare sector, where no one is analyzing the strands of my hair to see if they are twisted or loc’ed or braided. I continue to maintain a high professional standard of appearance — as it is understood all professionals must. I spend my time honing my skill set and caring for my patients, with no complex and pejorative hair regulation weighing me down.
And I am not alone. I know of other female physicians who have left the Army for similar reasons.
I applaud the United State Army, for setting high standards for appearance and hygiene, and expecting all service members to achieve them. But, it must recognize that the Caucasian hairstyles these regulations are based upon are not the only ways to achieve this professional, hygienic appearance. The Army must embrace the ethnic diversity within its ranks and stop placing undue hardship on its African American service women. It must understand the impossible choices it’s forcing upon its service women — either alter the structure of your hair with harmful chemicals, wear someone else’s straight hair, cut all your hair off, or endure harassment from officers measuring the size of your braids.
As a psychiatrist and African American woman I am all too aware of the toll this needless expenditure of time, money, and mental energy has on self-esteem. This is a toll no other group in the Army must pay.
And it ultimately detracts from meeting the goals of the mission. Why must African American women fight these battles to serve this country? Whether purposely or not, the result of these pejorative regulations will be the loss of the very talent and skill the Army has spent so much time and money cultivating.
So, though I’m appalled at how far these proposed changes have gone, they have finally triggered the public outcry that may result in change. I am heartened to witness African American service women finally finding their voice in defense of their hair and raising it loud and clear against this injustice.
Dr. Kristie Mitchell was previously a psychiatrist and Major for the United States Army.
Some schools that have recently been accused of mishandling sexual assault cases aren’t required to follow the Clery Act.
CREDIT: MATT RADICK VIA FLICKER CREATIVE COMMONS
In 1991, Congress passed the Jeanne Clery Act, a federal law that requires all colleges in the United States to accurately and effectively collect and disclose reports of sexual crimes that occur on their campuses and help end sexual violence on college campuses. Today, as college activists work to hold their administrations accountable for their sexual assault policies, the Clery Law is one of the federal requirements that allows them to demand change. But not every campus is required to follow it.
Two institutions that do not comply with the Clery Act are Pensacola Christian College (PCC) and Patrick Henry College (PHC). The colleges are two of 65 candidates and members of TRACS, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. And like many other colleges across the country, these institutions have been accused of mishandling rape cases.
Pensacola Christian College came under serious scrutiny after former student Samantha Field published the events of how PCC responded to her when she tried to seek counseling after a sexual assault. At one point, she was told by one of the five guidance counselors PCC has on staff to forgive her assailant because “bitterness will take seed and that bitterness will be so much worse than anything he could have done.”
At Patrick Henry College, a student tried to go to the office of Dean of Student Life to report harassment from a male classmate who had sent her an email that stated he “wanted to forcibly take her virginity.” As reported inthe New Republic, the student was told that “the choices you make and the people you choose to associate with, the way you try to portray yourself, will affect how people treat you” and that she should “think about her clothing and ‘the kinds of ideas it puts in men’s minds.’”
College administrators at PCC and Patrick Henry have denied the students’ claims. But the alleged reactions of both institutions are classic examples ofvictim-blaming, and are indicative of the continuing rape culture epidemic that is exposing itself in colleges throughout the United States. The toxicity of rape culture extends extends even farther than victim blaming and reducing the agency of an individual. In some cases it has young womenconvinced that sexual harassment and violence are normal behaviors, which discourages so many from reporting these crimes.
Although student activism has been a driving force in seeking to address rape culture at universities, this activism is yet to be seen at Pensacola Christian College or Patrick Henry. When your student handbook cites Ephesians 5:22, which reads, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,” it is not difficult to see how these college may view a woman’s autonomy. In fact, as one student told the New Republic, “Patrick Henry girls who are too loud, too eager for leadership roles, too political—no matter how appropriately they dress — are always kept at arm’s length. Boys refer to them as the ‘red leather stiletto girls’ or ‘political animals,’ and all but declare them unmarriageable.”
That right-wing environment may explain why students aren’t pushing for change. But why aren’t these colleges required to follow federal law in the first place?
A spokesperson for the Pensacola Christian College, Amy Glenn, told Think Progress that “though Pensacola Christian College applies [the] best practices in student services and care, we are not mandated under Clery Act and Title IX” because the school does not take federal funding. Patrick Henry College also maintains that it does not have to comply with the Clery Act for this reason, although a spokesperson from Patrick Henry was not available to answer Think Progress’s follow-up questions on the subject.
Abigail Boyer, a spokesperson from the Clery Center For Security on Campus, confirmed this exemption, explaining that all “public and private postsecondary institutions that participate in federal Title IV student financial assistance programs must comply with the Clery Act.” Title IV funding is any form of federal student aid, like Pell Grants or the Veteran’s GI Bill. The financial aid pages of both PCC and PHC state that they do not accept federal forms of financial aid in order to uphold their Christian values. The financial aid websites do not disclose that these sources of federal aid are from Title IV and, therefore, that this position exempts them from the Clery Act.
This could be a miscommunication between the schools and their accreditation and oversight agency, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. The president of TRACS, Dr. T. Paul Boatner, told ThinkProgress that “anything that is required by the federal government” is required of his member institutions, which includes abiding by all “standards set to federal regulations” like the federal regulation known as the Jeanne Clery Act.
Other TRACS institutes have worked to improve their sexual assault policies in recent years. For example, Bob Jones University (BJU) — which acceptsTitle IV funding, unlike PCC and PHC — was found to be in violation of the Clery Act, prompting an investigation by the organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). Now, Bob Jones University’s website features a page that details all available resources for students that have to report a sexual assault in compliance with the Clery Act. These resources are available in part due to a partnership withMinistrySafe, an organization that assists ministries and religious colleges in ensuring a safe environment and helps educates students and faculty about the issues regarding sexual violence.
While it is still legal for schools like Pensacola Christian and Patrick Henry to not comply with the Clery Act, the improvements made at Bob Jones University suggest that it is possible to maintain a Christian message while following federal regulations. And it would appear that leaving the address of sexual assault and rape to their own “best practices”, as PCC Spokesperson Amy Glenn put it, may not be the most effective course of action.
Mason Atkins is an intern for Think Progress.
Source: Mason Atkins for ThinkProgress
Sonia Sotomayor is my hero.
Imagine if everyone painted a picture of their demons. How different would they all look?
Things that matter. Pass ‘em on.
Which one of these is not like the others:
- That’s so dumb.
- That’s so stupid.
- That’s so annoying.
- That’s so gay.
It may look obvious typed out, but often times it doesn’t sound that way. That’s why some Duke students are taking matters into their own hands:
The above photos come from the You Don’t Say? campaign at Duke University, run by campus group Think Before You Talk and student-led LGBTQ organization Blue Devils United. There are a lot of other awful words out there to tackle, but if you think this is a good start, you should share it with your friends to get the conversation started.
I love this omg do I ever love this.