“The Big Chop”: Can TV News Viewers Handle It?
I teach young black women at Bennett College who aspire to make their mark in the media world. I teach them the tools that will help them become strong journalists. We talk about writing clearly, reading to stay informed, interviewing techniques, reporting skills, and just being an all-around professional.
Professionalism seems straightforward, but when it comes to certain things it’s very subjective. My class and I talk about what looks are professional for black women seeking on-screen television jobs. I believe the types of clothing and how they fit is important, and the standards are generally the same for everyone. But when you talk about hair there is a different standard. Black women’s natural hair does not always conform to the set standard. The standard bearers are white women, and their hair is typically long, silky, and straight. Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” takes a close look into the world of black women’s hair and their wish to mimic the standard bearers.
Black women tend to put harsh chemicals (perms) in their hair to straighten it from its naturally curly or kinky texture. They also wear expensive hair weaves or wigs to get the silky and straight look. Black women who decide to go natural call it “The Big Chop” because they usually have to cut a large part of their hair off to get rid of the damaged hair.
I don’t believe I or anyone else has the right to tell a woman how she should style her hair. I didn’t tell the students that they had to change their hair if they were wearing a natural look, but I did tell them most black women anchors and reporters shun natural hairstyles on the air.
I mentioned the story of Dorothy Reed, a television reporter who was suspended because she decided to wear cornrows on the air. You can find the 1981 articles from JET with a picture of Reed by clicking on the links before and after this sentence. She was later allowed to get back on the air without changing her hair.
Fast forward nearly 30 years later. One Florida reporter documented several black women including herself going through with ”The Big Chop.” Rochelle Ritchie, pictured here, is a reporter for WPTV-TV in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Ritchie was kind enough to share a little more background information about the story and herself through email. Here’s an excerpt of what she had to say below in blue.
“Making the decision to go natural was not an easy one, especially being a black female reporter. After graduating Western Kentucky University in 2004, I accepted an editor position at a local tv station in my home of Lexington, KY. I had sent out tons of resume tapes hoping to one day be a reporter. But I didn’t get one interview with my relaxed shoulder length hair. One day an anchor, black female, told me I needed to get extensions if I wanted to land a job. I got extensions and made a new tape with my new look and I started getting calls immediately. From there the belief that I needed extensions in order to be hired set in. I spent more money on my hair than anything. In six years I spent $9600, my student loans are $9500, so that should give you an idea of where my priorities were.
The story about going natural developed while I was having a conversation on the phone with a friend at work. My producer heard me saying, ” I am going natural, I am tired of wigs, weaves and relaxers.” She (producer) asked me what I meant by that and I showed her YouTube videos of black women who were on the journey of going natural. She was stunned and said, “Rochelle that would make a great story for sweeps.” I pitched the idea and with her support as well as our female anchor they allowed me to do it. My news director’s response was great. His only concern was just keeping up with the process of my story and hair. My general manager is a great guy and totally supported me as well.
The fear of getting a new job with my new look does not scare me because I believe my work and passion for this business will shine through.
I have had such an AMAZING response from the community. People of all genders and races have completely supported me with positive feedback. Of course if there were any negative emails my news director does not send those to me. But personally I haven’t gotten one email or Facebook comment that was negative. A matter of fact many of my white and Latino colleagues say I look more professional. I believe this as well. I feel I look more polished and sharp. I also feel like I think better without all that fake hair on my head! lol….
For my “black female reporter hopefuls” I say let your work show your ability to be a good, excuse me a great reporter. My story is a way for me to pave the way for black women’s hair to be acceptable not just in the professional world but on TV! I would say if you are natural. Keep it neat. And if you are worried about getting a job the fabulous thing is we can straighten our hair for the interview and go back to our beautiful curls when we leave.
Do I have any regrets? Yes I do. I regret denying my natural beauty. I regret falling into the belief that I needed to look a certain way to get into this business instead of believing in my ability as a reporter. I regret allowing someone to cover me up. But no more! This is me, Rochelle Ritchie a natural, professional and happy television reporter. And I feel more confident now than ever before and look forward to climbing the ladder of success with all my kinky curls.”
Ritchie’s story is one that couldn’t be told without having a supportive management team. I commend the bosses who took a moment to realize that their viewing audience wouldn’t turn away because their reporter’s hair changed. Or that their advertisers wouldn’t pull spots because this young black woman now is wearing her hair the way it naturally comes out of her head. In a story written on Richard Prince’s Journal-isms in October 2009 about this very topic…”spokesmen from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN told Journal-isms, there are no guidelines preventing black women from wearing their hair in natural styles.”
Maybe there aren’t any guidelines preventing natural hairstyles, but there is a culture in place that fosters the need for black women to look like their white counterparts. So many of them who may want to go natural continue to damage their hair and scalp, pay thousands of dollars for hair, and spend countless hours and money in hair salons.
Once those in power see that a black woman can write and report the same stories just as effectively when she has an afro or braids, the media world will have taken a huge step in the way of diversity. The push will have to come from black women who want to make the change. There are some black women wearing their natural hair in newsrooms around the country, but the numbers would be much higher if mainstream culture was more accepting of it, and that’s a shame. Those who want change will have to truly see if those “no guidelines preventing natural hair” really aren’t in place.
I also speak on this issue from a personal standpoint. I am a husband who has weathered the ups and downs of “The Big Chop” with my wife over the last year. She made the decision to cut her hair and get rid of the relaxer because she wanted to set a good example for our daughters. It was her decision to make, but she included me in the decision-making. I really never thought one way or another about what women were doing to their hair for the sake of societal beauty standards. I grew up in a house full of women and saw nearly every hairstyle imaginable, so I supported her transformation. But I have to admit that when she first cut off her below-the-shoulders hair to about 5 inches of shrunken ringlets, there was an adjustment period–for both of us. Her hobby is her hair now. There’s a big natural hair world on the internet, and she’s immersed in finding what products will work best for her hair. She has no regrets about her rediscovered curls and neither do I. Because when I hear my 4-year-old daughter say she loves her hair because it’s like Mommy’s, then I know she did the right thing.
Do you think it’s OK for black women to wear styles that showcase their natural texture while reporting the news?