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Shear Madness: Why Does a Black Woman Risk Losing Her Job Over Her Hair?

Professional black women still have to respond to centuries-old discomfort about the way their hair grows.

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You would think America would be getting used to black people by now. U.S. population forecasts indicate that whites will make up a minority of the country's population by 2043. We've seen a Disney movie, The Princess And the Frog (2009), featuring a black princess. We patted ourselves on the back for that milestone, much as we did when Vanessa Williams was named Miss America in 1984. We re-elected a black U.S. president, who lives with three black females.

Yet we are far from being a postracial society. Some of us, including some black folk, are uncomfortable with the natural texture of (many) black women's hair.

Shreveport's ABC affiliate
dismissed meteorologist Rhonda Lee for using the station's Facebook site as a forum to defend her (and other black women's) natural hairstyle against a viewer who expressed objection to same. A viewer, Emmitt Vascocu, wrote:

"The black lady that does the news is a very nice lady. the only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. i'm not sure if she is a cancer patient, but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv. what about letting someone a male have waist long hair do the news. what about that [sic]."

Lee responded on the KTBS Facebook page:

"I’m sorry you don’t like my ethnic hair. And no I don’t have cancer. I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair. For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn’t grow downward. It grows upward."

Viewer Vascocu soon apologized to Lee via Facebook. Nevertheless, Lee was dismissed. An online petition urging KTBS-TV in Shreveport to rehire her received more than 11,300 signatures. While Lee says this is the first time anyone has commented on her appearance on the station's Facebook page, it was not the first time her hairstyle became a professional issue. "I’ve even had a news director once say that my hair was too aggressive for Sacramento, so I wasn’t even allowed to interview at that point,” she said. “It’s been an interesting journey with my hair.” 

Interesting journey indeed. Ever since the late 1960s, when black American women began wearing natural hairstyles as part of a widespread trend toward intraracial acceptance of traditionally African physical features, many blacks have been embracing the notion that "Black is Beautiful." Educators, employers and the U.S. military have learned, to varying degrees, to stop worrying and love (or at least live with) the Afro.

There are certainly prominent black women in media such as MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, economic analyst Julianne Malveaux, The View's Whoopi Goldberg, and ESPN's Jemele Hill, who generally do not relax their hair. Veteran journalists Charlayne Hunter Gault of PBS, and former ABC News anchor Renee Poussaint wore natural styles. Former Nightline anchor Michel Martin, now an NPR host, has never worn a perm on the air.

It is a lot to ask of a person to apply an often dangerous, and at minimum, chemically drastic procedure, to their scalp. Women have suffered hair loss, burns and scalp ailments from treatments that were unsanitary, ill-suited for their skin or hair, or poorly applied. One can view the horrifying results (with attendant before-and-after photos) on any daytime TV series featuring small claims lawsuits. As quiet as it's kept, not every black American woman can wear a perm. There is a wide variance of opinion as to what age is appropriate for little girls to first undergo the process with a hot comb and a relaxer. Professional women, even in media, are as likely to be concerned with scalp care, as using their hair as a political statement.
Natural looks are sometimes criticized as militant, or in the words of the Sacramento news director, "aggressive." Yet one would hardly term Harris-Perry, Jemele Hill or Charlayne Hunter Gault raving radicals. Harris-Perry, like Malveaux, is an academic. Some may think that such women are more accepted with natural hairstyles because they discourse on weightier issues than three-day forecasts. Yet that doesn't explain Hill, who is viewed by millions of fratboys and sports bar frequenters in her position at ESPN.