Natural Hair on Air: My story

Natural Hair on Air: My story

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To many people, that’s just a picture. A headshot. But to me, it is literally a dream come true.

I never thought I would make it to this point. I worked, prayed and hoped for it, but I feared too.

For those who don’t know, I went natural the summer after I graduated from high school. I tried to transition slowly with protective styles like twists and braids, but it wasn’t healthy for my hair. So in October 2013, I chopped it all off.

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At the time, I was on a completely different career path; my goal was to get a degree in Biology and then go to veterinary school. I wrote about that too, if you want more details. After sophomore year I decided to pursue journalism and become a writer. Over time, a little voice kept whispering to me, “What about TV?” Opportunities started coming: a year-long investigative journalism program led to a summer internship at the #1 station in Atlanta and the top-rated TV station in the country (just stating facts), and a year in graduate school soon followed. And with those opportunities came some important decisions.

Not many people know this, but for a short time I actually considered getting dreadlocks (locs). My parents shot that idea down right away. It’s not that they mind locs—we’re Jamaican, after all. They wanted to protect me from the industry, from what people would say. “It’s already very competitive,” they said. “And no matter how talented you are, you’ll have to prove yourself against other black journalism students fighting for the same shot. And the hair will make it even harder.” The same you-have-to-work-twice-as-hard speech that many Black kids grow up hearing, but now my hair was an added shot in the foot.

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I got the summer internship at WSB-TV and spent most of the summer wearing my natural hair. My parents were excited and nervous for me. Under no circumstances could I go to work half-done; my hair was either freshly twisted or braided each night or put in a neat, moisturized puff each morning. No exceptions. I lost out on hours of sleep, but I was always put together.

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When I got the chance, I asked the black reporters and anchor what they thought I should do about my hair. I had another year to put together my reel before I started applying for jobs. They had very different opinions; some said I should stay natural and true to myself through school. Others advised me to consider wearing my hair straight, either in a wig, weave or straightening my own hair with heat, for at least the first few years of my career. When I made it to a certain point, they said, then I would have the leverage to negotiate wearing my hair how I wanted. Others said there wasn’t much of a chance of me finding a job in television with natural hair. It hurt, but I knew they weren’t saying these things out of spite. They were hopeful and scared for me, too.

I’ll never forget the words of one of those journalists, Jocelyn Dorsey. She was Atlanta’s first African-American news anchor, and one of the first to wear her natural hair on air. Monica Pearson, another one of my idols who now wears her hair natural too, soon followed. Dorsey told me that no matter what decision I made, curly or straight, weave or wig, the decision had to be mine and only mine.

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A week before the annual National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) convention in New Orleans, I got my hair straightened and trimmed. I wanted to have one clip of me with straight hair on my reel so recruiters could see both looks and decide what they preferred.

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Okay first, can we all agree that going to New Orleans in August with straight hair was a bad idea? I literally had to straighten my hair 2-3 times a day every day for the whole conference. Not a great decision. Anyway, I went. Many news directors and recruiters looked at my reel and gave me comments, including WSB’s. They were mostly encouraging about my hair, but wanted me to pick one look or the other and stick to it. And they didn’t want me to distract my viewers by changing it up.

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During that convention I had the pleasure of talking to Michaela Pereira, a CNN anchor who wore her curly hair proudly. She looked at pictures of my natural hair and encouraged me to be myself, in all of my glory. I almost cried; after hearing so many maybe’s and a few no’s, it meant everything to hear a yes from someone who knew what it was like.

I went home and told my parents about the support and feedback I’d received at NABJ. They were happy for me, but still asked me some hard questions. Was I willing to sacrifice the time and money in grad school just to lose opportunities because of my choice in hairstyles? Did I want to give up all that I had worked for? It was a real possibility. So I went into grad school still torn about the decision. I gave straight hair another try in my first quarter, this time as a weave.

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Don’t let that smile fool you. I lasted maybe six weeks before I had to take it out. It was too much to maintain and I didn’t like how insecure I felt with it. I couldn’t focus on my reporting the same way I did with my natural texture. Hairstyles aren’t everything and they’re not supposed to be, but I couldn’t fake that confidence. I decided going forward, it was natural or nothing.

As I went through my second and third quarters in school, I got very anxious about the job hunt. I kept it natural in my reels with fresh twist-outs, always with a middle part until I switched it to the side. “Consistency,” I kept telling myself as I braided my hair every time I knew I’d be on camera the next day. I kept the same products and regimen for months; if it worked, why change it?

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Fast forward to last August and the annual NABJ convention, this time in Detroit. I kept it natural and brought my portable hair steamer and trusted arsenal of oils and creams. I saw Michaela Pereira again in the career fair and worked up the nerve to talk to her. She remembered me right away, before I could even pull up the picture of us in New Orleans. I thanked her for giving me the courage to choose to be myself.

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I showed recruiters my new reel with nothing but 4C curls. To my surprise, their only critiques were about my reporting and my skills, not my look. I didn’t walk away with a job offer, but I had the reassurance that with a little more practice I could get my foot in the door somewhere. My goals were in reach.

Iyani Hughes, a fellow curly girl and the founder of Curly Girls on Air

Iyani Hughes, a fellow curly girl and the founder of Curly Girls on Air

Senait Gebregiorgis, an amazing young reporter I met in New Orleans and reconnected with in Detroit. She was probably the first recent grad I saw with natural hair, working in broadcast.

Senait Gebregiorgis, an amazing young reporter I met in New Orleans and reconnected with in Detroit. She was probably the first recent grad I saw with natural hair, working in broadcast.

My big sister and mentor Hannah Gebresilassie. She wore traditional East African braids on air while she worked in southern Illinois. She is a huge inspiration to me and I’m lucky to call her my friend.

My big sister and mentor Hannah Gebresilassie. She wore traditional East African braids on air while she worked in southern Illinois. She is a huge inspiration to me and I’m lucky to call her my friend.

And I met so many journalists on the same journey; girls and women who were trying to transition into a natural look on air, or were making their own reels in college. So many who told me, “I feel like if you can do it, I can do it.” I left knowing that I had inspired people, something I never imagined could happen just by wearing my fro out every day.

And it’s still happening. Weeks after that Detroit convention, I accepted an offer to come to Lansing, Michigan and work as a reporter. Hence that headshot way up at the top of this post!

I’m not the first curly girl here. Dana Whyte (middle) started wearing her natural hair on air in Lansing months before I got here. Same goes for Rae (right), who started on the same day as me.

I’m not the first curly girl here. Dana Whyte (middle) started wearing her natural hair on air in Lansing months before I got here. Same goes for Rae (right), who started on the same day as me.

So, why am I writing all of this now? This account from a black journalist is part of it. Brittany Noble Jones, an award-winning Black journalist, was fired from her job as an anchor in Jackson, MS for wearing her natural hair, among other reasons. Viewers leave voicemails with racial slurs when Black reporters and anchors change their hairstyles to something closer to their natural texture. They send emails sometimes, too, with their negative comments. And journalists with natural hair or looks that aren’t considered “the standard” run the risk of losing out on opportunities and jobs just for embracing who they are.

I’m one of the lucky ones. My hair is almost as thick as you can get, and I’ve gotten nothing but support from my bosses, my team and the viewers in Lansing. I’ve worn my hair in twist-outs, braid-outs, ponytails and puffs. And so far, to my knowledge, no one has complained.

Found this letter in my mailbox on Christmas Day 2018.

Found this letter in my mailbox on Christmas Day 2018.

No one has ever questioned my credibility because of my hair. No one has ever doubted my ability to do my job because of my hair. Viewers come up to me at events and tell me how much they love my hair, and that they love seeing more diversity on the news every night.

I want that same energy and support for every journalist.

I’m telling my story because I want more journalists to feel like they can choose the look that makes them happiest and helps them lose their job. Curly or straight, long or short, colored or not, we are more than our hair. I want recruiters and hiring managers to embrace diversity on their teams and let us show what an asset we can be to their newsrooms. I want us to keep inspiring brown and black boys and girls to love what they have. And I want young journalists and students considering this path to know that it is possible. You can do it.

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I am not an outlier. There are hundreds of Black journalists around the country who are embracing their natural looks and challenging the industry standards. We’re not going anywhere. This isn’t a fad that will die out. I want us to keep pushing. I’m starting to see women wearing protective styles on air and it sparks joy for me.

This is only the beginning. Let’s keep going.

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