JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As little girls, most Black girls wore pigtails, twists, braids. Decades later, as they entered the workforce, most were told they could not wear their hair in its natural state.
News4Jax anchor and reporter Jenese Harris said her mother, grandmother and great grandmother lived in a society in the early 1900s and 1950s when a pencil test was used to determine their social ranking in a white-dominated society.
In Harris’ words, her mother explained to her the pencil test. This was a test among Jim Crow Laws used to separate Black people from white people and to create division within the African-American community based on if you had European features or not:
“You take a pencil and you put the pencil in a Black person’s hair and if it falls out, your hair is loose enough and it’s acceptable enough. (By European standards) If it stays in, you’re too Black.”
Harris, along with News4Jax anchors and reporters Melanie Lawson, Marilyn Parker, Kelly Wiley and Lena Pringle all now wear their hair in either a natural or protective style, but after some painful experiences when they first got into television broadcasting.
“I can remember, like, my neighbor coming over and I had a towel over my head and I said, ‘No you cannot see my hair,’” Lawson said.
“I remember ... getting a relaxer from age 13 up until 22,” Parker said.
A Duke University study conducted last year found that Black women with natural hairstyles were perceived to be less professional and less competent and were less likely to be recommended for job interviews than their white counterparts.
A recent study by Dove found Black women are 80% more likely to change their natural hair to conform to social norms or expectations at work.
While these News4Jax reporters now wear natural hair on air at WJXT, some employers still limit the hairstyle of African-Americans and there is no law in place to protect their right to wear their hair the way God created it.
The CROWN Act -- an acronym for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair -- makes it illegal to deny employment or educational opportunities based on hair in California in 2019. Similar laws have since gone into effect in New York and five other states. There is proposed legislation in nearly two dozen more states, including Florida, but it failed to pass in last year’s session.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on Sept. 21, 2020. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate two days later but it failed to reach a floor vote before the end of the year. All pending legislation must be refiled in the new Congress.
Lawson began wearing her hair in natural curls on-air as a gesture to her daughter.
“The idea that now you have the option that you can do what you want to do is what matters,” Lawson said.
Pringle is moved when viewers contact her and let her know that her natural hair has an impact.
“I’ve even had dads reach out,” she said. “We watch you every morning, and you’re a great representation.”
Anchor Joy Purdy said caring for her hair is much easier now that she can wear it natural, but her two daughters weren’t as comfortable with the look at first.
“What changed my mind when I went around the stores and saw people in magazines that had hair like mine,” daughter Alexandra said.
“I would say you are beautiful as you are because it’s OK to be different,” said Joy’s younger daughter, Addison.
Watch complete stories on the CROWN Act including more interviews with News4Jax anchors: Part 1:
Part 2 aired Wednesday, Feb. 10, on River City Live: