After the incidents of George Floyd last year one of the things the Navy has done is to once again remove the use of Officer Photographs for selection boards. I say once again because prior to 2018 they were not required, and then required again in 2018, and removed again in September 2020. Last year in 2020, my officer photograph needed updating prior to my selection board for promotion to O-5. Prior to taking the picture, I constantly debated with myself as to whether I should take my picture with my current braided style or get my hair straightened to be deemed more professional. It is funny because my teen daughter is quite turned off from the military because she sees the constant rules regarding my hair and nails I must comply with as so restrictive and she often says, “ Mom, the Navy does not let you be your real you and it's just too many rules.”
Prior to taking my picture, her comments rang in my head. Also, I thought of the black female midshipmen who when they see me rocking my afro brighten up and say, “Ma’am, I am loving your hair.” On the other hand, I also think about the time when I had a major briefing in the Pentagon a few years back, and the weekend prior I had my hair straightened for a trim. As I stood at the front of the room of a crowd of over 20 waiting for the Admiral to arrive who I was about to brief, a White male senior officer in front of everyone said, “I see you did your hair today.” I am so used to comments like this when I straighten my hair, that I came with a quick response to ease the tension in the room. I responded jokingly saying, “I decided against my Navy hair i.e. two French braids as my daughter calls it for this special day.” I proceeded to kill the brief because I have become accustomed to living in a world as the unicorn as a Black woman in the Navy since when I first entered into the US Naval Academy.
So by now, you are likely wondering how did I wear my hair for my promotion board picture? I actually wore it in the braids pulled back in the bun because I realized that straight hair does not hide the fact that I am Black, and should not be a factor in my promotion. I realized that If my hair is a factor, then the system is already designed for me to not succeed. What influenced my decision to wear braids is the fact that at that time, I only had six years left to help create a Navy where the women watching me such as my daughter and Black female midshipmen are unashamed to be themselves. One of my former students, a black female, who recently graduated in 2020 wrote me a note saying that the one thing she admired about me was that I was my authentic self and wore my natural hair and even my skirt making her unashamed to be Black and a woman in a world where she was a double minority.
(Grab my white heels here!)
I am in no way criticizing my sisters who wear their hair straight whether pressed, relaxed, or weaves, but “that is not the real me” as my teen girl says. For me natural hair is me, and I just have embraced that mindset that I must be me, and they will adjust. I have spent so much of my career adjusting to norms that I was not born with such as trying to not be too Black or too feminine, but the reality of it is that I am a Black and a woman and that will never change. Being a middle aged woman in the military, I am in the position to rewrite the narrative for myself and the young men and women watching.