It is the subject du jour in some Montgomery circles: What is the definition of “good hair” if you are an African American? A new movie by comedian/writer Chris Rock has reopened this particular debate among Black women and, to a lesser extent, Black men. In my opinion, it would be wise for Whites not to dismiss this as a non-starter, and not just because the issue permeates hiring in the television industry and in journalism, in general.
To begin: Born with curly, wild hair, I’ve been curious about other people’s straight tresses as long as I can remember. My efforts to wrestle my hair into submission cannot touch the virtual shaming that my Black contemporaries went through as teenagers and young adults.
Most of us recall the Afro hairdo of the ’60s, a halo that proclaimed Black pride. It was the relief from, and antidote to, decades of ironing and pomading hair to make it look more “white.” But the Afro is long gone, and the “good hair” of 2009 consists of straightened, glazed tresses a la Michele Obama and Tyra Banks. The urgency with which many women of color respond to their natural, kinked hair fuels a billion-dollar annual industry. I know several women who spend between 5 and 12 hours per month at the beauty parlor getting weaves, braids and extensions added to their natural hair or undergoing the chemical straightening process.
I work on a college campus where I watch a parade of Black students, ages 18 to 26; the variety of wigs astounds me. The average cost of a full human hair wig is about $600. Most of the young women on campus own two or three full wigs and several hairpieces that function as ponytails or buns. All these wigs are Asian-straight and black. Men, as well, have braids and weaves added to their hair, or else they wear it cut so close to the scalp that there is no visible nap or curl left.
What does this say about the prevailing standards for young professionals, and what can African American students expect when they enter the job market?
Here comes a cold bucket of reality water from the blog of E.K. Daufin, who teaches communications at Alabama State University. She writes: “A few years ago, I left the Montgomery Area Black Journalist’s Association because a Black woman with chemically straightened, short hair, who was the executive editor of a local national chain newspaper, verbally attacked me and a few male and female student journalists for wearing our naturally kinky hair. She said that our neat, clean hair wasn’t “professional” and that if White people we were interviewing called us, “The N-Word,” it would be our fault because we wore our naturally kinky hair.
“Also a few years ago in Montgomery, at a local, television news station Associated Press Broadcasters seminar, the White news director at the time, with the blessings of an older Black female reporter who straightens her hair, sent a national award-winning Black female communication student out of the room crying because they verbally attacked her neatly styled kinky hair as “unacceptable.” The victimized student returned to my class on the Monday after the seminar, in a white-scalped, pin-straight “Tina Turner – Rollin’ on the River” type wig because her self-esteem was so wounded from that attack on her blackness.”
You could argue that a student or new graduate is insecure and most likely to buy into the straight-is-better ethos. But Blacks at the top of the chain still buy in. Washington’s bright political lights like Dr. Susan Rice, foreign policy advisor to President Obama, and Deputy Chief of Staff Mona Sutphen do not go natural. Rice’s hair is straightened; Sutphen wears extensions. In Black entertainment, straight hair and wigs are pervasive. Oprah and Beyonce have never been seen without processed hair or fabulous wigs.
To understand the full extent to which the norm for hair in the USA absolutely requires that hair be Caucasian in appearance, pick up your remote control. Surf five or six channels during the news hours and during programs like Good Morning America. In the 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. bracket, the other day, the only African American I saw with natural hair was Whoopie Goldberg.
And this is where my concern intersects with the “good hair issue,” especially in our own industry. If we value intellect, ethics, thoroughness, writing ability and objectivity as the sole criteria for hiring and promoting journalists, why is “good hair” even on the table? Why would news directors or journalists advise anyone to avoid a hairstyle that represents an ethnicity? In my view, an inclusive attitude arguably may be the best weapon against the Hannities, Boortzes and Limbaughs of the broadcast world.