(The Root) — It has been one heck of a week for black women in the workplace. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice faced criticism about her handling of the events in Benghazi, Libya, from members of the GOP perhaps hell-bent on making Democrats pay for a 2012 U.S. election win. Rice's reputation was besmirched as she was poked, pulled, prodded and bullied by a mob of angry white politicians led by Sen. John McCain to such an extent that The Root's Keli Goff proclaimed Rice to be "this generation's Lani Guinier." As Goff explained, Rice was being ushered into a sisterhood that women in general and black women specifically know all too well — potential censure when attempting to rise to a position of power.
While Rice was being lambasted, a story out of Shreveport, La., emerged involving a black meteorologist named Rhonda Lee, who was fired from KTBS-TV ostensibly for explaining the beauty and validity of wearing natural hair. A viewer questioned her on Facebook about wearing a short Afro. The viewer suggested that she might have cancer and that she might consider wearing a wig or growing out her hair because he found the look unattractive. Lee replied in a respectful manner, taking the time to explain why black women wear their hair in natural styles and why Lee is proud of her African-American ancestry.
That incident happened Oct. 1. Another incident took place on Nov. 14, when a viewer suggested that a segment on the channel, called the "Three Minute Smile," showed too many children of color. Lee also responded, explaining that the children were randomly selected. She even wished him "happy holidays."
Apparently Lee's explanation of the importance of natural hair and the selection process for the ABC affiliate's segment was possibly too much for executives. They fired her for violating a policy Lee contends was never written down. KTBS maintains that Lee and another white male reporter were fired over violations of station policy about posting on Facebook, not because of her hair. They also allege that she had been previously warned. Lee maintains the memo that KTBS management offered in response to the subsequent uproar mentioned only viewer complaints, as opposed to "comments," which are what Lee addressed. Some viewers have been outraged by the firing, and Change.org has started a petition to get Lee rehired.
What I find interesting about Lee's case is that instead of being supported for standing up for herself like ABC's Jennifer Livingston, Lee was punished. You may recall that in October, Livingston, the morning anchor for the LaCrosse, Wis., station was championed by her bosses and viewers for standing up to a bully, who in a letter called Livingston a bad role model because she is overweight. Livingston was given airtime to address the viewer's personal attack. Her passionate response went viral on the Internet with the YouTube video getting more than 10.5 million views.
When I first learned of Lee's firing, I immediately thought of Livingston and wondered how the situation differed. The one thing that the women share is that viewers feel that they have the right to insult, hurt and humiliate women in news based on their looks. The one thing that is drastically different is how their news stations, both ABC affiliates, responded.
Livingston was allowed to share the contents of the letter and respond to them using airtime. Was Lee not supposed to respond at all, even when the comments — callous at best and mean-spirited at worst — were directed to her in a public forum? Why was Livingston applauded for standing up for herself while Lee was punished and dismissed for doing essentially the same thing?
The reception and treatment of black women can be vastly different, as evidenced by Lee's case and the railroading of Rice. Race can complicate an already complicated situation and perhaps add another layer of stress to the workplace. Why should Lee have to endure criticism about her appearance that is directly related to her racial and cultural heritage as opposed to being evaluated on her performance?
Black women walk a tightrope in the workplace because we often have to manage other people's expectations of who we are. Too often we're immediately perceived as being "angry black women" rather than women who are merely informed and opinionated.
We are forced to learn the cultural nuances of many with whom we come in contact in the workplace, but few people are willing to do the same in return. Consequently, we often find ourselves competing against the basest stereotypes about us that are circulating in popular culture. This is part of the reason why McCain, a man who chose Sarah Palin as a running mate, can get away with suggesting that Rice wasn't that bright, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Rice had to bow out of the running for the secretary of state position in order to avoid the difficult prospect of defending herself — and perhaps being perceived as coming off as belligerent — against a campaign aimed to block her from the job.
That Rice can be discouraged from pursuing the position — a job for which she perhaps has prepared for some of her adult life — is troubling. In a similar way, there's Lee's reality — a black woman who got fired from a job because, God forbid, she stood up for herself. Even though Lee used a friendly tone and took the road less traveled by many Americans — a respectful response — she has been punished and portrayed as an angry black woman. When it came to Rice, she faced harsh assessments about her competency and ultimately had to stand down.
Silencing black women in the workplace, it seems, is as American as apple pie. Memo to America: That's the real reason black women can seem angry.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.