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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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Nor does the weighty issue theory account for Whoopi Goldberg, a comedian by trade, who discusses matters both light and serious with her cohorts on The View (where it is intriguing that the former and current black women panelists, Star Jones and Sherri Shepherd respectively, are noted for their myriad wigs).

People forget that the Queen of Media, Oprah Winfrey, supplanted Phil Donahue as the monarch of daytime talk while sporting a 'fro. At the time, Winfrey didn't fit any of the accepted physical criteria of women in Western media. She was a large black woman with "African" facial features and a natural hairstyle, which was shortly followed by a jheri curl. Her rise is proof that viewers can love such persons the way they are. Had Rhonda Lee not used her station's social media as a platform, she'd still be working at KTBS.  
 
The uproar surrounding Lee's firing recalls Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas and the criticism of her hairstyle. At a time when she should have been universally admired as a highly accomplished teen living her brightest moments, Douglas had to talk about her hair and respond to centuries-old American discomfort with the way some black women's hair grows. There is no similar controversy when young NBA star Blake Griffin, or young NFL quarterback Cam Newton change their hairstyle. No one seems to care how TV's Greg Gumbel, Al Roker or Don Lemon wear their hair.
 
I once read a critical remark on a social media platform about the wigs worn by Fox NFL sideline commentator Pam Oliver. A male former college classmate of Oliver's jumped to her defense, stating she was fortunate to be a sideline NFL reporter, given that other seasoned journalists such as Michelle Tafoya and Lesley Visser, most of Oliver's contemporaries were younger blondes. There's some evidence for that: In 2010 and 2011 ESPN hired a couple of young blonde studio anchors, Lindsay Czarniak, who is now 35, and Sara Walsh, now 34, who were working in Washington, DC as weekend sportscasters on network affiliates. A dream job as an ESPN studio host is a quantum leap from a local weekend gig.
 
On a message board about the Lee controversy, a black female law student said she and some colleagues were deciding whether or not to "relax" their hair for their next job interview in the legal profession. One poster decided to go natural, feeling that a firm which could not accept her as she looked that way, would not be a place she would prefer to work.

It's worth remembering that when natural styles were more popular, America was more socially segregated than it is today. The more popular Afros, cornrows and braids became, the wider it became known among white Americans, that, as Rhonda Lee said, many black women's hair does not grow "down."

When Winfrey hosted her first nationally syndicated show in 1986, most of her viewers had grown up when the Afro was prevalent. Her meteoric rise began a decade after naturals were commonplace in the U.S., even on television. By 1986, an Afro lacked the rebellious status it bore when entertainers Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone and Odetta wore them in 1966. After all, Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm wore natural hairstyles as elected officials. Today, one sees few Afros, especially on the tube. Those who wear them, or cornrows, stand out. That rarity is associated with politicization, because it goes against trend. Thus, what is often just a personal or health choice may be misinterpreted as calling attention to oneself. Of course, Oprah's success suggests that if Americans love you, they don't care what you look like.
 
There is a brighter side to the visceral negative reaction to black women who do not relax their hair (even the word "relax" bears elements of a sexist demand that a black woman "chill out"). Radio and TV shockjock Don Imus said a lot of controversial things during his career. Black women such as Maya Angelou and newscaster Gwen Ifill (whom he termed a "cleaning lady") were particular butts of jokes by Imus and his studio staff. It took Imus' insensitivity about the Rutgers women's basketball team and their hair to finally prompt his dismissal. So black women's hair does have power, all these years after the "Black is Beautiful" movement.