The Black blogosphere and African-American news has been all abuzz over the last week because of anchorwoman Rochelle Ritchie of WPTV-TV in West Palm Beach, Fla. Ritchie has caused quite a positive stir with her story about ‘going natural’ in the professional news world and the motivations and complications behind it. I applaud Ms. Ritchie for taking such a bold step, especially this early in her career. And I give credit to the press outlets, especially Black ones, that have promoted the story. The problem is that in an effort to praise Ritchie, one of the real problems she identifies is never fully addressed.
The background story is fairly simple for the uninitiated. Having graduated from college in 2004 Ms. Ritchie took a job at a local television station in Lexington, Kentucky. At the time she had a shoulder length perm that you’d see on any 20 something Black woman coming out of college. She reports that she sent out dozens of demo tapes of her on-air work and was not getting any call backs for months, until one day she got a key piece of advice. An older Black anchorwoman told her that she was not going to get ahead in the television unless she got extensions. The short black perm wasn’t going to catch the eye of news producers across the country but a nice weave would do it. Ritchie changed her hair, sent out a new demo and suddenly job offers started popping up around the country. The fact that she reports having to have spent over $9,000 to maintain that hair over the next six years was no small sacrifice. For reasons that aren’t quite clear, she pitches a story to her bosses in Florida about going natural. They accepted it, she cut off her hair, shared her story with the public and now sports a natural and has boosted the station’s ratings.
This is certainly a feel good story, but when watching the report online I couldn’t help but notice some glaring omissions in the narrative. Ritchie notes in her voiceover how Black women spend thousands on their hair even during a recession. She introduces a hair expert that warns of scalp damage and alopecia resulting from perms. She ends with a personal story of how a mother went natural to show her daughter that beauty doesn’t have to come from a hot-comb. What’s missing from all of these lovely stories? White Americans.
If you knew nothing of race, class and culture you could easily walk away from these stories thinking “What is WRONG with Black women?” Why are these women spending thousands of dollars on haircare during a recession?” The weakness of Ritchie’s narrative is that she doesn’t and perhaps can’t point out why this is such a difficult choice for many African-American women. Black female skin color, hair and beauty have been almost universally marginalized or rejected by the majority in American popular culture until perhaps the last 20 years.
In order to get ahead in most fields African-Americans have to conform to White norms, socially, politically and in the case of women even physically regardless of how unreasonable or unhealthy these standards may be. Rochelle Ritchie’s story demonstrates how “professionalism” is racialized to a White standard. In order to advance in her career Rochelle Richie and Black women across America are being told that they have to do something unnatural and potentially damaging to their hair and health. Whether White Americans are conscious of this or not, they perpetuate a system wherein Black people are told implicitly that the way they look is unacceptable. Simply having the hair that you are born with, no matter how well maintained, is not ‘professional’ in the minds of many Whites in a position to hire and fire.
In Richie’s case, she happens to be in the particularly image conscious industry of television news but the battle she managed to fight and win is waged everyday in offices across the country. In the past perhaps African-Americans had to conform to White notions of beauty out of our own post slave self loathing. But now, it’s a move of financial necessity. If going natural, or growing locks makes your boss ‘uncomfortable’ then you have to weigh your job and promotions against your health. I’m sure that Richie knows these deeper truths but this aspect of the story would probably be a bit more in depth than she would have been allowed to address. She still deserves credit however, and she’s earned the right to be happy about her nappy.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)