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African-American women shouldn't have to defend hairstyles

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Les Lester
Les Lester: African-American women should feel free to wear their hair in a way that naturally suits them.
Courtesy of Les Lester

Les Lester is a freelance journalist and author of the novel "The Awakening of Khufu."

Several years ago when I reported a story about an African-American woman who was getting flak about her hairstyle from her employer, I felt the issue of black hair represented the last frontier of African-Americans settling into the corporate lifestyle. But the recent firing of Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist for KTBS TV in Shreveport, La., for defending her hair on the station's Facebook page, proved my assessment was premature. 

This on the heels of the Gabby Douglas Olympics onslaught, which saw the teen gymnast curtsy to public scrutiny and emerge with the standard European long-hair look. 

Rhonda Lee, who sports a short, natural style, seems to have concluded that enough is enough. She says she was previously denied an interview with a station in California because the news director had advised her that her hairstyle looked "too aggressive." She says another station asked her to change her hair to make it more appealing to a mass audience.

KTBS, however, says it didn't fire Lee because of her hair. It maintains the reason was that she violated station policy that outlines how employees should respond to posts on its Facebook page, which is through a third party at the station. Lee contends there is no written policy and says she was not at a meeting where social media practices were discussed. The station says this was not the first time Lee had crossed the line and notes that KTBS also fired a veteran male news reporter who had responded to a post concerning sexual orientation. 

The viewer who posted on Facebook, a white male, wrote that though "she is a nice lady" she needed to "wear a wig or grow some more hair." He went on to suggest that she looked like a "cancer patient." 

Lee responded: "I'm sorry you don't like my ethnic hair." She wrote that she didn't have cancer. She said that "traditionally our [African-American] hair doesn't grow downward. It grows upward." She pointed out that while many black women use straightening agents, she didn't feel she needed to.

In a television interview with Soledad O'Brien, she said that racially sensitive issues need to be addressed by all of us. She explained that after the viewer's post had remained on the page for six days, she felt she needed to respond. 

  And I agree with her. African-American women should be able to wear their hair in keeping with its natural requirements. And given the history of the issue in this country, it needed to be addressed. 

I'd love to see black women go back to more natural styles, like the Afro and braids. Straightening via hot combs and chemicals often damages hair, and the new trend toward weaving can get expensive. 

From a historical perspective, black women and men in Nile Valley civilizations, like ancient Egypt, would simply cut their hair bald and wear braided wigs for special occasions. It's pretty hot in Africa, so long hair is not naturally functional for black people. 

Rhonda Lee is the type of journalist we should applaud. Some issues are too important to simply sweep under the rug.