In 2018, I went viral for getting fired. I was a news anchor in Mississippi who wore a crown braid on camera. I wanted to teach my newborn son and our community to love their Black hair.
Within weeks of wearing my new style, my boss pulled me aside and told me my hair was unprofessional. He said it was the equivalent of him wearing a baseball cap to go to the grocery store. “Viewers needed to see a beauty queen,” he said. I soon changed my hair back to straight. But I didn’t feel like royalty.
About a year later, I filed a discrimination complaint with the state about the way I was treated as a young Black mother and reporter — there was the hair issue, and then there was how I was taken off commercials when I was pregnant, and how my boss told me when I pitched stories about race that these stories “are not for all people.” My Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case worker warned me I would get fired for filing. She was right. I was terminated while taking accrued sick time.
(In 2019, Noble’s former employer told “TODAY” she was “terminated for excessive absenteeism and for her failure to return to work and fulfill her contractual responsibilities after exhausting all available leave time.” Her EEOC case was dismissed.)
When I eventually blogged about why I was fired, it was my “unprofessional” hair that struck the greatest nerve — especially among Black women and men who have had similar experiences. Many people thanked me for taking a stand and shared with me their own stories of discrimination. But ultimately, Black people were not surprised this had happened to me.
Since I was fired, conversations about the expectations and punishment Black women face over their hair have continued to brew on- and offline. In 2019, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), prohibiting hair discrimination. “Implicit and explicit biases against natural hair are deeply ingrained in workplace norms and society at large and continue the legacy of dehumanizing Black people,” he said.
Still, I carried shame. I am a national award-winning news reporter with a bachelor’s and master’s in journalism, yet I did not have a job on TV. Five years later, I am still applying for work in broadcast journalism.
Over time, though, I have realized that I am not alone. I recently spoke to several Black women in broadcast journalism who have a complicated history with how others perceive their hair. Some feel comfortable wearing afros, locs and braids; others don’t. We all have a hair story to share, and mine isn’t that unique.
The shame and stigma Black women face over their hair
My hair journey began before preschool. My mom often pulled my afro up into a neat bun for class. Yet every day, my fro found a way to puff up in areas I didn’t expect. During gym, I watched as the other ponytails dangled from side to side and I prayed that my hair would one day have the same bounce and flexibility as my classmates’. On Sunday mornings, my mom burned a hot comb on the stove to temporarily straighten my hair. I remember running for cover when it rained during recess because I knew my otherwise 4c tightly curled coils would magically revert to their natural state.
When I was in third grade, ads for kids’ hair straighteners played on repeat. Every six weeks, I left the chemical on my hair until my scalp burned. I repeated this routine even after I graduated from college.
Beauty expectations aside, these chemicals likely had an effect on my health. Black women are three times more likely than white women to have fibroids on their uterus — and at age 28, I had eight fibroids. Limited access to health care and the use of hair relaxers are thought to be possible causes for this disparity.
Thankfully, my uterus healed, and I went into labor with my miracle baby while anchoring the news. I finished the broadcast without showing a hint of pain or discomfort. I had to be professional. I wanted my son to be proud to see his mom, the news anchor, on TV one day.
While some Black journalists feel empowered, not all feel comfortable wearing natural hair
Like me, many professional Black women have felt pressure not to go natural. In a 2019 survey by Unilever’s Dove soap, 80% of participants said they had changed their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.
Some of this has changed because of online movements and the CROWN Act: While federal legislation has stalled, Minnesota became the 19th state last week to have passed a similar law. Black journalists are now protected in larger markets like New York and California.
Eboni K. Williams, an attorney, journalist and co-host of Revolt TV’s “State of the Culture,” has felt the heat to look like a “Black Barbie doll.” But now, Williams likes to switch up her blow out with protective styles like faux locs or box braids. “The CROWN Act affirms my liberty and freedom of choice to show up,” she said.
ABC’s Janai Norman said that when she was pregnant, she started wearing wigs at work to protect her natural hair. “The first time I anchored the overnight show, the hairstylist convinced me to unbraid my hair and to wear my natural hair on-air as it was,” said Norman, the “Good Morning America” weekend co-anchor. “The feedback that morning was fantastic.”
NBC “TODAY” co-host Sheinelle Jones was nervous before wearing her twist out on air in 2020. She spent hours during the pandemic learning how to perfect the look. “I’ve heard from so many women and girls who appreciate seeing someone on national TV who has similar hair texture to their own,” she said.
“I did it for myself, but after reading the responses on social media,” she said, “I also realized that the natural hair movement is much bigger than me.”
Many women in Southern markets, including where I’m from, aren’t protected by the CROWN Act, though. In some contracts, there’s language about hair — in mine, there was a “no shaggy hair” clause.
WFAA Dallas news anchor Tashara Parker has switched her look to fit in, wearing a wig when she started on TV. ”When you go into a workplace, you’re expected to show up a certain way.” She later worked for a Black news director who gave her the confidence to wear her natural hair. At times, she is still criticized. “I’ve been told in the past by a viewer … ‘You look like you stuck your hand in an electrical socket,’ referring to my natural curl pattern,” she said.
Even with protections from local laws, one news anchor with 30 years of experience, who asked to be anonymous for fear of losing her job, admits that she has “never been allowed to wear her hair natural or in braids.” Another news anchor with almost 20 years of experience said she waited until after the law passed in her state to wear braids. Natural hair acceptance may be greater, and Black women may be feeling more empowered, but hair is still not protected under federal law.
As for me, I currently have 97 locs. I am excited to get back on TV, but I will no longer change my hair to earn a paycheck. The most joyous part of my hair journey, though, is watching my 6-year-old son love and care for his own crown. He is the future.