Actress Gabrielle Union has caused a stir with accusations that NBC fired her from “America’s Got Talent” because she exposed their racist ways.
The conversation turned to hair last week after her stylist released a video showcasing the various styles he has created with the actress’ tresses during her stint on the show. Various news reports allege that producers said Union’s hair was “too black.”
No question the styles were authentically black. They were also unquestionably beautiful. A fluffy ponytail cascading down her back like a stretched out piece of cotton, twisted coils piled on top of her head like mini sculptures, poofy curls that framed her face like a lion’s mane and cornrows.
If the allegations are true, NBC producers would not be the first to police a black woman’s hair. Not by a long shot. Too many white Americans are obsessed with black hair. If it’s not fried straight with chemicals or a flat iron it somehow isn’t appropriate.
More insulting is when the styles are accepted when culturally appropriated, like when a national fashion magazine gave the Kardashians credit for making cornrows trendy.
Why can’t people just leave black women’s hair alone? Women shouldn’t be ridiculed for what grows naturally out of their head. Not only is it frustrating and insulting, but discriminatory and built off European standards of beauty.
Yet, just about every black woman has experienced the awkward questions about their hair. Actress Halle Barry’s close-cropped, pixie hairstyle became iconic in the ‘90s and copied by black women everywhere. But she said she chose the style not to become a trendsetter, but because there were no Hollywood hairdressers who could style her. Black women were essentially invisible.
“That’s why I had short hair. (Maintaining) it was easy,” she told NBC. “I think as people of color, especially in the business, we haven’t always had people that know how to manage our hair.”
We’ve all heard the stories about schools that kick out students for wearing dreads or braids. Remember the referee in New Jersey who said a student had to cut off his dreads or forfeit a match? And what about the people who have lost their jobs because their hairstyles weren’t acceptable? But who decides what is acceptable?
Discriminatory hair experiences can be emotionally taxing and cause people to question their worth. This is especially problematic for children still trying to find their identity. The price tag is high for those who try to conform rather than embrace their natural hair. Black consumers spent $473 million on hair in 2017, according to Nielsen. Can we also talk about the time it takes to get straight locks? Black women spend way too much of their weekends sitting in hair salons.
The good thing is black women are starting to push back and tune out the naysayers. Just look at the news anchors who have traded their bone-straight tresses for textured styles. The trend is notable given the beauty restrictions often required by television stations. Ever notice how anchors look like clones of one another?
Janai Norman, co-anchor of ABC News’ “World News Now” and an ABC News correspondent, is one who has bucked the trend. In a recent blog post she wrote that “to free my curls, I first had to free my mind.” Norman used to straighten her hair, but is now seen on air with a head full of curls. It is a welcome sight and a brave move. We know that viewers can be unforgiving — and sometimes racist — in their criticism.
“For nearly 30 years, I was conditioned by a standard of beauty that left me out,” she said. “I was not included. TV, magazines, society — by omission — told me I was not beautiful, my hair needed to be bone straight, my eyes blue or green, my skin fair and I didn’t make the cut.”
Several lawsuits have made the issue one of civil rights and also brought the problem of hair discrimination to a head. Jurisdictions across the country are also adopting laws to ban hair discrimination. In Maryland, Montgomery County passed legislation earlier this year that prohibits discrimination against natural hairstyles, including “braids, locks, Afros, curls and twists.” Businesses and others can be fined up to $5,000 for violating the law.
California and New York have passed similar laws and other places have pending legislation.
In a fairer world, these kinds of laws would seem silly and people would see that beauty comes in all forms. I, for one, love black women who change their hair like chameleons. I can’t wait to see what Gabrielle Union has for us next.
Andrea K. McDaniels is The Baltimore Sun’s deputy editorial page editor.