When the news presenter Lukwesa Burak first started working at the BBC, she was told that her afro-textured hair was “too ethnic”.
Ten years later, a photograph of the black British broadcaster wearing sweeping braids as she presented the news went viral on Twitter.
“Yes, I had braids while reading the news and yes, even on a national bulletin. Times have changed!” she tweeted last week.
The image of the 48-year-old presenter prompted an outpouring of support, particularly from parents and teachers who wanted to instill confidence in black children.
From workplaces to schools, natural black hair and protective hairstyles such as braids, locs and twists have been discriminated against and considered unprofessional or distracting.
Speaking to the Guardian, Burak said Eurocentric beauty standards had created pressure for black youth and black women especially to adopt a “European look”. “Once they’re teenagers, a lot of black girls especially are chemically treating their hair to straighten it,” she said.
Burak first wore her natural hair in a small afro a decade ago, when she was at Sky News, but says there is still an unspoken pressure in the news industry to wear your hair straight. “If you were to look back at black, mixed race or even Asian presenters, once they’re in front of the camera, often that hair is straightened.”
Burak is not the only black British news presenter to wear natural or protective hair styles in front of the camera.
Charlene White, who became the first black woman to present ITV News at 10, credited the former ITV news presenter Joyce Ohajah as a “trailblazer” for wearing braids on camera 15 years ago.
White, who is also a co-host on the daytime chatshow Loose Women, which had its first all-black panel Last May, recently discussed with her co-panellist Kéllé Bryan how braiding protects black women’s natural hair and allows it to recover from damage. “It’s an education for an audience who probably haven’t heard these conversations regarding black hair,” she said.
Both Burak and White raised concerns about black and mixed-race students who continue to be penalized or excluded for their hairstyles in school.
In 2020, schoolgirl Ruby Williams won £8,500 in an out-of-court settlement against a secondary school in Hackney, east London, after she was repeatedly sent home because of her afro hair. Instances like these, and the vitriol of online trolls, emboldened White to appear on-screen with a myriad of hairstyles: natural, protective and others.
“I understand the impact that could have not just on little girls up and down the country, but grown black women as well, who are routinely told the style they wear their hair in is not presentable, professional, or suitable for an office or senior working environment,” White said.
Fifty years ago, the British news industry was not so accommodating towards black journalists.
when Barbara BlakeHannah became Britain’s first black female TV reporter in 1968 for Thames Television, she appeared on camera with straightened hair. “Everyone expected black hair to be straightened, so I didn’t get any comments from viewers about my hairstyle,” she said.
But nine months in, Blake’s contract was abruptly terminated because of racist complaints from viewers. The decision coincided with the civil rights era “black is beautiful” movement in the US. “Having been racially profiled because of the color of my skin, which included the fact that I had negro hair, even if it was straightened, that’s what led me to grow my natural hair,” said Blake, who now wears floor-length plaited dreadlocks.
Some change has crept in since Blake’s days as a reporter, particularly after the Black Lives Matter movement reignited conversations about race in the media.
Nonetheless, Burak still received some negative responses to her tweet. “The rules are there to look more professional,” one user replied.
“I don’t care how many negative vibes you’re going to send to me,” Burak said of online trolls. With a mixed-race teenaged daughter of her own, she wants young black and mixed-race youth to be proud of her natural hair. “I’m going to keep doing it, and that’s all that matters to me.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism