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EXCLUSIVE: Meteorologist Rhonda Lee on Getting Fired, Being Labeled the Rosa Parks of Natural Hair

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Meteorologist Rhonda Lee
Rhonda Lee

It's been a little over a month since Rhonda A. Lee was fired from ABC affiliate KTBS-TV in Shreveport, Louisiana for responding professionally, and ever so politely, to two racist Facebook posts written about her natural hair by viewers on the station’s page. Now that she's had time to reflect on the incident, Lee says she would do it all over and defend herself, again. She recalls a manager at the station recommending she thank viewers for their oft-racially insensitive comments about her hair. “I remember thinking, No I’m not going to thank someone for being racist,” she says.

Still on the hunt for her next weatherwoman position, Lee spoke with ESENCE.com about her next steps, being labeled the Rosa Parks of natural hair, and getting an apology from the viewer whose comments cost her a job.

ESSENCE.com: This past month has been quite a whirlwind for you. How have you been taking all the attention?
Rhonda Lee: [Laughs] I haven’t imploded yet, so that’s a plus. I didn’t sign up for any of it so when it’s dropped on your lap you kinda do the best you can with what you have.

ESSENCE.com: Have you been in touch with the TV station at all?
Lee: About a week after I got fired I went in to plead for my job back. That was early December. Other than that, not at all.

ESSENCE.com: The TV station is maintaining that they sent an email addressing staff communicating with readers on social media. And you’re saying you didn’t get it.
Lee: Here’s the thing: I can’t confirm I got it because I was locked out of the system immediately after I was let go. I never got anything in writing. Both of my parents work for the federal government so I’m really good about handbooks and things in writing. So I can affirm I never got part of any policy as it pertains to any Facebook posts and social media in general.

ESSENCE.com: So what’s next for you? Are you planning a lawsuit against the station?
Lee: I’ve been in touch with the station, at least with their attorneys to try to come to some sort of resolution. They’ve been rather communicative over the last two weeks or two. It feels like something is moving forward.

ESSENCE.com: Have your colleagues at the station been supportive?
Lee: Yes, I’ve gotten support from people I never imagined were paying attention. To me, the more meaningful part has been knowing that I did get support from the least likely of supporters. I never had any problems with my colleagues; I loved working at KTBS. I had fabulous co-workers.

ESSENCE.com: Your natural hair has been a focal point of so many conversations this past month. But you used to have long, straight hair. What made you go natural to begin with?
Lee: I have no fancy reason. I had a little bit of breakage in the back and I thought, let’s start all over. That was in 2000. That was the big chop, minus the natural. After I got it cut, I still colored and relaxed it. I cut my hair to the length it is now in July 2010.  

ESSENCE.com: A few months ago Solange tweeted about her disdain for all the focus on her natural hair. Are you in that boat where you feel like your natural hair is not a statement—it’s just how you’re feeling at the moment? Is there a chance we’ll see you in a weave next week?
Lee: When I first cut my hair it was with every intention of growing it back because my thought process was, I need to start over. I’ve been called the Rosa Parks of natural hair. That’s a pretty heavy mantle to carry around, but I’m okay with that. I’m okay if Solange wears a weave, or Wendy Williams a wig. My only concern is my having the freedom to wear my hair the way I want to. That’s the freedom we enjoy as Black women. My industry is a visual medium, and I understand that, but I feel like my White co-workers are told things like, ‘Get a nice little cut to frame your face.’ They’re not told to be completely, biologically different. And that is the burden that I have. I want my biology to be honored and respected.

ESSENCE.com: Do you think things would be different if you started wearing a straight wig?
Lee: I don’t think we would have received that first Facebook post from that viewer. He wouldn’t have had anything to talk about because, dare I say it, I would have been very status quo and looked like everyone else. But would I have done anything different with my hair, knowing the trouble I’ve gone through here in Shreveport? I went through the same trouble in my last job in Austin. That’s ever disheartening because it’s just been so hard over something that’s potentially so superficial, if we just let it be. I came to the station with my short hair and had to explain it to my viewers, which, to me, is not the biggest deal. It comes down to leadership, I feel. If the management will back you up, then you’re okay.

ESSENCE.com: Have you gotten any job offers?
Lee: Not as of yet, though I am on the shortlist for a couple of jobs. I’m chalking it up to it being the early part of the year and people just getting back from vacation. I have gotten some support from the president of the American Meteorological Society. To have an ally like that in my corner is major.

ESSENCE.com: Is there anything you would have done differently?
Lee: Goodness no. Not in a million years. I remember my general manager saying, the next time you get a Facebook comment like that, just thank the viewer for watching. I remember thinking, No I’m not going to thank someone for being racist. But, the man who wrote that post, Emmit Vascocu, did apologize. He is to be credited. He personally wrote me. I wrote him back and thanked him for his apology.

ESSENCE.com: Where would you like to see yourself next?
Lee: [Laughs] Well, I would like to be gainfully employed. I’ve been told I need to go to a bigger market, somewhere I would be accepted. And that’s fine. Going forward, I just want to have a job doing what I love.

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