Yesterday I received a massive amount of messages regarding statements made by comedian and Talk Show Host, Sheryl Underwood. Several of you, up in arms, forwarded me the synopsis from TheRoot, requesting that I start a petition, write into CBS or just publicly share an outrage over the comments she made on her show, ‘The Talk.” After reading through the transcript and watching the video myself, my initial thoughts were that A.) Yes, she’s a comedian and afforded some manner of freedom to entertain and provoke people but more importantly B.) What was said marginalized a large group of women (on a national stage) and in my opinion, spoke to what I feel is a deeper issue, one that the ladies of CurlyNikki.com are not at all unfamiliar with.
One thing that makes a joke a joke is the underlying truth that is seeded within it. Of course, it is that underlying truth that also offends and provokes. There is truth in the concept that our hair is seen as less desirable. That is why the natural hair movement is so powerful. Some of us grew up with that ‘truth’ combed, picked, relaxed, burned, and fried into our psyches. With this is in mind, I reached out to a mutual friend because I felt compelled to bring Sheryl to the couch. I wanted to ask the questions that I had for her after she offered up commentary that has demanded answers from so many:
CN: At the time, did you consider how the words you said were likely to be received? Where did they come from? Why did you think it was funny?
Sheryl: Everyday after the show, I look at the footage as a way to continue to strive to be better… to express myself better. I play everything back so I can watch, learn and improve. When that segment played back, I knew that it would be misunderstood.
CN: Misunderstood how?
Sheryl: The discussion was about cutting and saving hair. I didn’t speak about Heidi Klum or her children’s hair. I stated that the act of saving hair was ‘nasty’. Cutting and saving what I consider as dead… it’s like saving fingernails. People are accusing me of calling natural hair ‘nasty’. I did not say that.
CN: I got that. I’m more curious about the juxtaposition you made between saving ‘curly, nappy, beady’ hair versus ‘some beautiful long silky stuff’.
Sheryl: That was a bad choice of words. A bad juxtaposition of words to imply that our hair is not good. I made a mistake. I will own up to that mistake. I’m going to talk to God and change the way I articulate things and be more cognizant. I’m not perfect and I bet if you put a camera on someone all day, they’d eventually say something they’d regret too. I am asking you to forgive me for the statement I made, which to me, is a power only God has, really.
CN: So, we all have self-image issues. I do. Many of my readers do. We’re all self- conscious and we’re at different stages on our journeys to self acceptance. I hated my hair and it took me years to get over that disdain and it’s not a unique story. I’m wondering more about the psychology behind the statement in the first place.
Sheryl: I’m not what you think I am. I don’t have self-hate. I am not ashamed of my Blackness or who I am. In highschool I had a giant afro. In college I was militant. I loved my afro puff. My dad instilled Black pride in me. I have no hair shame whatsoever.
CN: I don’t want you to think I’m judging you or assuming that you hate yourself. We all have self-esteem issues, though. I was only inviting you to explore the deeper meaning behind the words.
Sheryl: I grew up with a father who instilled Black pride in me. I’ve always loved Black hair and rocked natural hair most of my life and didn’t care what anyone thought about it. But then I went through ‘the change’ and my hair began to thin out and the texture changed. My hair wasn’t with me anymore, not because it was natural, but because my hormones changed. It became very difficult to manage and I couldn’t do what I used to be able to do with it. I’m like every other woman… I like versatility! So I went to Bosley’s Hair club for Men and got some hair transplatnted, but it still wasn’t working and my scalp was sore. So when you see me in a wig it’s more of a fashion choice. It’s not that I don’t like myself or don’t like my hair. It’s more that my hair turned on me with my changing hormones. I have worn curly hair, natural hair on the show, I [even] wore braids on Comic View. The only reason it’s not natural now is because of where I am in my life.
CN: What’s it been like for you in the business?
Sheryl: If you look at all the time I was on BET, I had braids and I had people telling me, “… if you wanna make it in this business…[wear your hair straight]” and I said, well I don’t really give a damn if I don’t make it in this business. I have 3 degrees. I can go get a job anywhere. To give you an example, I have this curly weave I call the Weezy Jefferson. I wanted to wear this wig for a show and the producers told me I looked ‘hostile’. That’s what was said to me. Guess what I said? I said, ‘if I look hostile, wait until you hear me talk if you don’t let me wear this curly hair’. That’s what took me so long to get to this point, because I was so defiant, which is threatening to some people. Black and White, male and female. You have no idea what I and other’s in the business have been through. I often feel uncomfortable. For years I’ve had to face… I’m not ‘Black’, I’m ‘too Black’, I’m not ‘fat’, I’m ‘too fat’, someone who looks like me, who works in the business I work in, it’s difficult. Everybody talks about the way I look and it’s our people that have been the hardest on me. But look, even with my makeup and wig off, I would be able to flirt with Shemar Moore and John Stamos. ‘Cause I’m fine.
I am going to make mistakes, because I’m human. And I’m sorry for what my words inferred, but it doesn’t call my Blackness into question. My Blackness comes out in other ways, subtle ways. On the show, when they refer to him as simply, ‘Obama’, I straighten them up and remind them that he ain’t your boy, he’s the president. President Obama. I’m learning lessons, and I cannot evolve if I’m not allowed to be empowering.
Sheryl at a red carpet premier sporting her natural hair
CN: What do you want to say to those offended by your words?
Sheryl: There is a consequence to everything that you do and say. I understand why a part of my community was disappointed in the implication that Black, natural hair is bad and that White hair is good. I will be much more careful with everything I say. Please do not attack my colleagues, my family, my friends. I’m with ya’ll. I’m fighting for you everyday and despite making myself available on the radio show and on Twitter, I don’t feel like you’re letting me engage in a respectful conversation.
I’m raising money for all 105 HBCU’s and I’m going to use the platform of CBS not to just raise money for them, but to increase diversity- gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, disenfranchised Whites, Native Americans and Black students- so that everyone can get a quality education at an HBCU. If you decide that I am the mission of the march, how do I get people to listen to me when I say, ‘Trayvon Martin is not the only one’, like I said on the The Talk. I can’t engage them, if I’m fighting with you. I feel that my people have a right to speak to me because I’ve been speaking to them. But you have to understand that we’re fighting the good fight everyday. I made a mistake and I’m sorry.
That’s it. As a blogger I was unsatisfied that I was unable to provide more answers – to find the deeper meaning. As a psychotherapist I was concerned. As a woman and mother of a baby girl, I felt the need to keep asking questions. I’m not sure if it’s clear, but I did not get exactly what I wanted as we never discussed the meaning behind her words. I wanted, selfishly and possibly unreasonably, for her to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment. Knowing that she wouldn’t immediately change the way she feels, I was thinking that through sharing my story and the stories of CN readers, that she may acknowledge the psychology behind the juxtaposition. That didn’t happen, nor was this the first time any of us have conversed with or overheard women who made like-minded comments. Some of us get it right away and for some it takes a village. By the end of the conversation, though, I truly believed Sheryl knew that her comments were distasteful but maybe she didn’t 100% know why. Either way, there is never any judgement on my couch. Progress is a process and it all has to start with a dialogue.
What would you tell Sheryl if she was your mother/sister/cousin/daughter?
**UPDATE Sept 4, 2013**
Listen in as Sheryl Underwood apologizes on the Steve Harvey Morning Show