February 22, 2022

Quanecia Fraser felt very nervous one Monday morning in early September. The anchor/reporter for KETV Channel 7 in Omaha, Nebraska, was about to go live on air, with her natural hair.

“I had a feeling like, ‘OK, here goes. I’m about to do it … it’s about to happen,’” Fraser recalled of the moments before the 5 a.m. newscast for the ABC affiliate. “But then I think I also remember telling myself, ‘You know, it’s just like any other day. Your hair just looks different.’”

Fraser, who is Black, had kept her natural hair braided and tucked underneath a wig for work. But she had been mulling a change for some time. She wanted her hair to reach a certain length before she made the switch. But a scalp issue led to concern for her health, and Fraser decided it was time.

She spoke to her boyfriend, who told her she’d look great with her natural hair. She also consulted with her mother in Dallas. She was supportive.

“Other Black women may tell you this, but my mom and I would fight over my hair. It is a constant back-and-forth: The mom wants to do one thing, the daughter wants to do another thing,” Fraser said. “After getting her encouragement, I was like, ‘You know what, I think I’m going to do this.’”

Fraser called her boss and shared what she was considering. She said he was open, so that weekend she got started. She washed her hair and styled it in a twist out, which entailed dividing her hair into multiple sections all over her head, then dividing those sections into two separate pieces that are then wrapped around each other — from root to end. Once her hair dried and set, she unraveled the twists. The resulting look was an even wave or curl all throughout her hair that also adds volume.

Quanecia Fraser, an anchor/reporter for KETV Channel 7 in Omaha, Nebraska, decided to wear her hair natural on-air last fall. (Courtesy: Quanecia Fraser)

When Fraser arrived at the KETV station early that morning of Sept. 6, she was showered with compliments from coworkers. A few hours later, Fraser wondered if she should share her decision to go natural on social media. She doubted it was necessary.

But then she thought about young Quanecia.

“If younger me saw that the older me was wearing her hair natural and letting other people know about it, she’d be so amazed. And if I was a young girl right now, and I saw that a TV reporter/anchor wore her hair natural — and say I wasn’t sure about the way I wanted to wear my hair — seeing that woman wear her hair natural would make me feel so good and make me feel so empowered.”

Fraser knew that seeing her hairstyle change from one day to the next would be jarring for some viewers. So she posted to Twitter:

In sharing her story, Fraser joined a growing number of Black female journalists who unapologetically embrace their natural texture and push against what has been the norm for so long in their industry — straight, shoulder-length hair. 

The hashtag #NaturalHairOnAir — which Fraser included in her tweet — brims with pride and resistance, as Black female on-air journalists and meteorologists upload photos of themselves at work, in afros, cornrows, Bantu knots, braids, and more.

Poynter spoke with more than a half dozen Black women who are on-air journalists to better understand all that surrounds the decision to go natural in a world that has not always embraced it. Some arrived at the decision with an air of slight caution — in part because of the complex messaging they received around their hair as children and the advice from college professors who warned of diminished job prospects should they go natural. 

Anti-Black hair sentiment has deep roots in the U.S. Black people are disproportionately affected by aesthetic norms in the workplace and school systems. The restriction of Black hairstyles continually makes headlines. There’s a push to prohibit discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture through the Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair Act, or CROWN Act. In 2019, California became the first state in the nation to sign it into law.

Black women with natural hairstyles like braids or twists are often perceived as less professional than Black women with straightened hair, according to multiple studies conducted by Ashleigh Shelby Rosette and Christy Zhou Koval at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. In four studies, the researchers compared how Black and white female job applicants were evaluated in an interview process based on their hairstyle.

Koval said their research found that, across the board, Black women with natural hairstyles such as cornrows or afros were less likely to be recommended for a job interview than other candidates.

“And probably the most consequential finding was the link to competence that we found,” said Rosette, a professor and senior associate dean at the Fuqua School of Business. “We found this micro-mediating chain such that the hairstyle and the hair choice influenced the extent to which they were perceived as professional, which then influenced the extent to which they were perceived as competent, which then influenced the extent to which they were likely to be hired for a particular job.”

Koval, now an assistant professor in the management department at the Michigan State University Broad College of Business, suggested these natural hair biases are accentuated in industries that have strong dress norms.

While their studies were not specific to Black women journalists, Rosette said that, in general, people need to be more aware of hair discrimination and of the texture of Black hair, and what Black women have to grapple with.

“The idea of choosing a hairstyle should be a personal choice. And the way in which you are evaluated should have minimal impact on perceptions of competence, but that’s not necessarily what we find,” she said. “The idea of us conforming to something that might not be natural may not necessarily be in our best interest, but it’s a choice that many Black women are making, because they perceive that that’s the choice that they have to make in order to get their job and to keep their jobs.”

Fraser said her Black friends who are also anchors and reporters manage their hair differently. 

“The important thing to remember is that every station is different and there are — from what I have heard — still some stations where Black women are told not to wear their hair naturally,” she said. “Some women have it in their contracts that they have to keep a certain look the whole time, so it really depends on the station. There are some stations where the bosses want you to talk to them before you wear your hair natural or change your style.”

Early in her journalism career, Whitney Burney noted the messaging she received from mentors and acquaintances in the field: news directors can get hung up on natural hair. Burney had worn her hair natural in college, but when she began piecing together her reel for job applications, she was careful to keep her hair straight. “I also had this personal idea, which was likely formulated by societal norms, that straight hair is the professional standard,” Burney said. “You look more polished with straight hair, yada, yada, yada.”

The coronavirus pandemic was a turning point. Burney, an anchor/reporter for WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said she is particular about her hair and would drive two hours from home to get it done. When the virus shut down businesses, she no longer had a way to get her hair cut or styled. Burney decided it was as good a time as any to go natural. One day, she showed up to work with an afro.

“Since then, I’ve just kind of been letting it do what it does,” she said.

Whitney Burney, an anchor/reporter for WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, decided to wear her hair natural after the pandemic. (Courtesy: Whitney Burney)

Burney said she didn’t tell management about her decision. She noted that, in Facebook groups for women of color in TV, this is a frequent topic of discussion, with many questions like: How did you approach your management about changing your hair? What was that conversation like? 

Burney said she wasn’t nervous because her current station is open-minded.

“I also didn’t even feel the need to approach management and ask them, ‘Is it OK for me to do this?’ Mainly because I don’t believe that it makes a lot of sense to give someone the space to tell you ‘no,’ especially — if I can be candid — management in a lot of places are white males,” she said. “They have no idea what it’s like to style Black hair, no idea what it’s like to have Black hair, so it just seems kind of silly to me to even ask them what’s best for my hair.”

Burney said it turned out well for her, and recognizes that others have not had the same experience — which she said is unfortunate.

Before landing a job as a meteorologist for 10 Tampa Bay in Tampa, Florida, Autumn Robertson worked for some time in Oregon — where she said she was the only Black woman in the market at the time. Finding herself in an area that wasn’t very diverse made it difficult for her to get her hair done. So Robertson did what was best for her lifestyle and health — she went natural. She didn’t get any pushback from management, but did receive emails from viewers about the “professionalism” of her hair.

“‘Her hair is not professional’ — that never really made sense,” Robertson said. “What do you deem professional at the end of the day? My hair does not take away the way I do my job, my knowledge.”

For the majority of her life, Lena Pringle had a relaxer. She sported a relaxed pixie cut when she began her journalism career, but gradually grew tired of chemically treating her hair every two weeks. A fitness buff, Pringle also often had to think about protecting her hair during workouts.

“Honestly I got so tired of having to decide between my edges and my hips that I went to my news director, who at the time was a Black man,” said Pringle, who was then a morning reporter for “Good Day Columbia” at WACH in Columbia, South Carolina. “I told him, ‘Listen, I already have short hair. I’m thinking of going natural. I really just want to try it out.’”

She asked then-WACH news director Darryl Huger: Would he be OK with her going natural?

“He got it. I didn’t have to go through some long thesis or TED Talk or anything like that,” Pringle recalled. “He was a Black male. People in his family already had natural hair.”

Huger said he understood because he grew up as the only boy with six sisters. “I totally got it, as far as what Black women deal with, with their hair,” he said.

Pringle then made the big chop.

Most of the women who spoke to Poynter said there are sometimes clauses in on-air talent contracts that state they can’t switch up their look without prior approval from management. Huger, who left television news in 2018, said different companies have different contracts.

“There are certain agreements that you’ll make sure you get management approval if you make any certain cosmetic changes,” he said. “The reason why is because of the investments they (the TV stations) would make for on-air promotions and commercials. You wouldn’t want a reporter or anchor to one day come in and their hair is black, but then the next day, they’re on air and their hair is blonde. And you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, we’re confusing the audience. Who is that person?’”

Huger said this applies to on-air talent of all races and genders. When a station has to reshoot on-air promos or portraits for websites, that’s time and money. 

Two years after her big chop, in September 2020, Pringle tweeted:

The tweet went viral, leading Pringle’s story to be featured on Today.com and “The Drew Barrymore Show.” The response from the community was overwhelmingly positive.

“I am never going back, ever,” said Pringle, who is now an anchor/reporter for WJXT in Jacksonville, Florida, and keeps a tapered haircut. “I can work out, I can walk in the rain, I can go to the pool, I can go on vacation, and I don’t ever have to worry about hair. And as a Black woman, I have never felt more free in my life than when I went natural. I’ve had to worry about my hair so much. But now, I can just exist. It’s such a beautifully freeing feeling, to be fully embraced … professionally as well.”

Katiera Winfrey, who covers multicultural news as a reporter for WISH-TV in Indianapolis, Indiana, has been rocking her natural hair for years. She didn’t always. A college professor told her she would never get a job with natural hair, so she relaxed it. In her first on-air job in Texas, Winfrey put her hair in a bun to keep it out of the way. In her second job, she began experimenting ever so often by wearing her hair out.

“But at that job in 2013, I wore it out and the news director told me, ‘You need to tame your hair,’” Winfrey said. “In the same job, I had gone out on a story, spoke to a state representative. The first thing he said to me when I walked through the door was, he laughed and said, ‘Bad hair day?’ And I was like, ‘No.’”

Winfrey described the experience as discouraging, but she knew she was never getting a relaxer. She didn’t want to straighten her hair, and didn’t want to wear a weave. She said early-career on-air journalists don’t make enough money to do that.

“Later on in my career when I finally said, ‘I’m going to do this,’ I started seeing people on national news with braids. I started seeing other women that I looked up to in larger markets with curly hair or natural hair. And I thought, if they’re setting the standard, let me go ahead and jump on and that way I can use them as an example: ‘Oh, well, Melissa Harris-Perry wears braids every day. Oh, Athena Jones wears braids every day. Oh, Tonya Mosley has an afro.’ And those are the people that I looked at to say, ‘You do not have to fit this mold.’”

Late last year, Sia Nyorkor, an anchor/reporter for 19 News in Cleveland, shared her personal hair journey in a special report she produced on Black hair culture and the CROWN Act. Nyorkor got her first relaxer at 9 years old. Over the years, she noticed the damage the chemical treatment was having on her hair. In her early years as an on-air journalist, Nyorkor wore sew-in weaves and extensions. Then, in 2018, she went full natural on air. To her surprise, she was celebrated by both management and her viewers. 

At the National Association of Black Journalists’ 2019 convention and career fair in Miami, Nyorkor joined other Black female journalists who wore their natural hair on air for a coordinated photo shoot. The photos went viral.

“We had a hashtag — #NaturalHairOnAir …  It’s still one of the best memories ever because you look around and you see women that look like you. They’re wearing afros, they’re wearing braids, they’re wearing locs, they’re wearing their natural curls. And they’re professional and they’re accomplished. They’re breaking down those barriers.”

Nyorkor said people are still being discriminated against because of their hair.

“They’re not getting jobs, they’re not getting a promotion, they’re not getting accepted to certain schools, they’re being made uncomfortable at work because of their hair, and that’s wrong,” she said. “Right now, about a dozen states have passed the CROWN Act, but the rest of the states need to follow suit. … We got to get to the root of this problem. The root of the problem is racism, and it’s Black people that suffer from this.”

Ashley Brewer has been a weekday morning meteorologist for WABG in Greenwood, Mississippi, for about eight months. It’s her first journalism job. Brewer said that when she was applying to jobs, she hoped the station she ended up in would be fine with her natural hair. It’s a part of who she is, she said.

Ashley Brewer, a weekday morning meteorologist for WABG in Greenwood, Mississippi, for about eight months, recommends other young Black women who aspire to be on-air journalists to do their research on which TV stations are open to talent wearing their hair natural at work. (Courtesy: Ashley Brewer)

Brewer’s advice for Black women who aspire to become on-air journalists or meteorologists? Do your research. “Have the important conversations before you’re hired,” she said. “Make sure it’s what you definitely want to do, and that you’ll have the flexibility to change it up if necessary.”

Back in Nebraska, Fraser is still rocking her natural hair. She may straighten it again, she may not. But the on-air anchor/reporter wants to make one thing clear.

“Black women shouldn’t be shamed for wearing their hair straight, or wearing wigs, or wearing braids. I think that the most important thing is that Black women wear their hair however they, as individuals, feel comfortable and beautiful,” Fraser said. “That’s the moral of all of this: the same way everyone else wears their hair how they feel is best, the same should apply for Black women.”

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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