It’s been more than a year since Rhonda Lee was fired from her meteorologist anchor position after defending her natural hair and Black kids on her station’s Facebook page.
If you recall, Lee made national news after KTBS 3 News, an ABC affiliate in Shreveport, La., fired her in November of 2012 after she responded to several racially insensitive messages on the station’s Facebook page. The first Facebook post dealt with a viewer who thought that she did a good job, but needed to change her hair style. Here is the exchange between that viewer and Lee:
The following month, Facebook commenter Kenny Moreland criticized KTBS 3 News’ annual “Three Minute Smile” segment, which awards children a 3-minute shopping spree at a local Walmart. Apparently, Moreland wasn’t pleased that all of the winners were Black children. Below is his comment and Lee’s response:
Lee says her replies got her fired, ending her 14-month stint at the station. As NewsOne previously reported, the station’s official response was that she was fired for violating its social media policy. Lee, however, says she was never made aware of such a policy and feels the station became uncomfortable with viewer complaints over her hair and her reply to the “Three Minute Smile” post. She says she has filed an EEOC complaint against the station and is in mediation to resolve her dismissal.
She has not held a TV job since and told NewsOne in an exclusive interview that her hair is still an issue–even with those who want to see her employed again.
“Co-workers have had an intervention of sorts with me when I first started trying to get weather jobs,” Lee said. “They took me to lunch and told me, ‘You’re going to have to grow your hair out.’”
She doesn’t see the point, though. Why should she have to wear a weave to deliver the weather? “I don’t know why they care,” Lee said of people offering advice on how she should deal with her job hunt. “I don’t know why anyone cares. As long as it’s well-kept and looks OK.”
For her admirable stance of defending Black beauty, Lee is watching weather reports from home instead of delivering them like she used to. And it isn’t for a lack of trying, either. For example, a frat brother (Lee is a member of Zeta Phi Beta) talked her up to a station manager once, but that produced nothing. Another colleague hand delivered her resume to a news director at a Florida station, but she got radio silence from the Sunshine state, too. Lee even hired an agent after she lost the KTBS 3 News job, but it didn’t work out; she is on her second one now. Still, no job. Not even an interview.
Lee went to the annual NABJ conference (the National Association for Black Journalists) in Orlando Fla., last summer and caught up with some friends and colleagues who were sympathetic to her situation. “‘Oh, I remember you. You’re not working yet?,’” Lee remembers people saying. After a week of networking at the largest stage for Black journalists, Lee still got no leads.
While her meteorology career has stalled, Lee’s personal life has blossomed. She is engaged to a lawyer in Shreveport and gave birth to a health baby boy, Lewis; he is 5-months-old now. But she still misses being on television. “Maybe this will be my year, but it was a little shocking not to get anything from anybody,” she said.
With nearly 20 years in the business, Lee says that her hair has always been an issue. Most of the complaints have come from Black men, she said. Or at least they would be the ones most likely to voice their concerns.
“I’ve had a manager once say that he loved everything about me and was seriously considering hiring me, but ‘Your hair. I can’t hire you with that hair,’” she recalls him saying. That manager, who was an African-American male at a Sacramento-based station, added that her hair was “too aggressive” for his viewers.
Before Lee’s hair drama at the Shreveport station, she was at ABC affiliate KXAN, in Austin, Texas, where she claims staff racially abused her. She filed a discrimination lawsuit against that station as well; Lee says she hopes that case will be settled this summer. So, in two consecutive years, her tenure at two stations ended over what she feels was blatant racial discrimination.
“I started to doubt the industry more than I started to doubt myself,” Lee said as she reflected on her struggles to maintain work.
But she certainly is not alone. Minorities have always been under-represented in broadcast television, despite some signs of promise over the last 30 years. As of July of 2013, nearly 80 percent of the television workforce comprised of Whites, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association/Hofstra University Annual Survey. African Americans make up less than ten percent of the television workforce. Black men have 25 percent more of the available television jobs overall than Black woman, according to the study.
But there seems to be much more to these figures and Lee’s experience than job availability. Society has a record of revolting against any Black woman who doesn’t want to perm, weave and hair extension herself into a model of White female acceptability. Even little Black girls aren’t exempt.
In September, 7-year-old girl Teona Parker of Deborah Brown Community School, in Tulsa, Okla., was brought to tears after being told that her dreadlocks violated school policy and faced being kicked. The school later said the girl’s hair was fine after receiving national media attention over the issue. Ashley Davis, 24, faced her own hairgate in October when her St. Louis-based finance company told her she had to cut her dreadlocks or lose her job, even though she had them when the company hired her. Two months later, 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke (pictured right) in Florida faced expulsion from her private school over her natural hair before administrators were shamed into reconsidering their position.
For now, no one is considering Lee for a meteorologist job, but she is keeping herself sharp by reading the American Meteorological Society’s website and keeping active in the organization’s local Shreveport chapter. On her Facebook page, she still updates her 8,650 followers on the weather. And supporters hit up her Twitter page offering their blessings. She even got a few shoutouts on National Weatherperson’s Day this week:
It has been frustrating for Lee to sit at home and watch her colleagues report the weather, but she truly feels that her struggles are serving a higher purpose. And, above all else, she does not regret posting those Facebook replies and would not change a word she wrote.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “Not one single key stroke would have been changed. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t say anything erroneous, so there would be absolutely no reason for me to change anything. I think it would be silly for anyone in my position to think well, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said something.’ You do have to say something, sometimes. I can’t sit by and let people pick on Black kids and say, ‘Well, you know, its company policy. We don’t respond.’ And I can’t sit by and let someone say to me, ‘Well, you’re not as attractive because you have your natural hair on your head. I can’t let people get away with that kind of talk.”