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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.

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.

Bijan C. Bayne is a cultural critic, and author of the upcoming book, Elgin Baylor: The First Superstar.