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Reporter fired after responding to racially-charged Facebook comments about her hair

11:37 AM, Dec 12, 2012   |    comments
Rhonda Lee (TheGrio/NBC)
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(NBC/The Grio) -- Being an on-air personality comes with its fair share of criticism and scrutiny from viewers. However, black meteorologist Rhonda Lee from the Shreveport, Louisiana ABC affiliate decided to take matters into her own hands after some viewers left racially-charged comments on her station's Facebook page.

But Lee's decision to stand up for herself on Facebook, ultimately cost her, her job.

Posted by viewer Emmitt Vascocu on KTBS 3 News' Facebook page in October, the post criticized the veteran journalist's choice to don a short, natural Afro:

"The black lady that does the news is a very nice lady.the only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv," Vascocu wrote.

Lee, the same day, wrote a lengthy response to Vascocu:

"Hello Emmitt-I am the 'black lady' to which you are referring. I'm sorry you don't like my ethnic hair. And no I don't have cancer." Lee continues the post writing, "I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair...Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty. Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society."

Due to the backlash of negative comments, Vascocu apologized to Lee on Facebook and even called KTBS's station manager to express his regret.

Although the issue between Lee and Vascocu seemed to be resolved, managers at KTBS were not happy with the social media exchange. In fact, Lee was told to contact the station managers in regard to any future controversial posts in their social media pages.

"[My manager] asked me, 'I don't understand why you don't just let it go?' I told him I've been black my whole life. I can't let this kind of stuff just go and if you're not going to say anything then something needs to be said on behalf of the station," Lee told the Grio in an interview. "Any other company would have taken that down by now because the things on there are hurtful."

A couple of weeks later, Lee commented on another post written by a viewer who asked why the majority of children picked for the station's "Three Minute Smile" gift-giving holiday series were African-American.

Lee replied the next day, "The children are picked at random. So there goes your theory that they are selected for their color. I would like to think it doesn't matter who the child is. If you truly just want to see the kids happy your message had a funny way of showing it."

 

After posting her second response to the viewer, Lee was promptly asked to leave the station, citing that she violated the company policy that employees were not allowed to respond to controversial social media posts. She claims she never knew this policy existed and that this new policy was supposedly announced at a staff meeting that occurred on her day off.

"Unbeknownst to me, they claimed they have a policy...Mind you it is not written down anywhere," Lee said. "How am I supposed abide by a policy that's not written down? [My manager] said,'We can hold you accountable for things that were announced.'"

TheGrio reached out to KTBS's station manager, George Sirven, who sent an email stating, "Since this is a personnel matter, we do not comment on these issues out of respect for both the employee and the employer." Both racially-charged Facebook posts have since been removed from KTBS's page.

"I ended up being the one punished, and being chastised and you know, I was told that I should 'just let it go," Lee says. "I don't know if I can't let the more racist comments go...There were a menagerie of horrible comments about black people in general on the station's Facebook page."

And this isn't the first time Lee, who has been in the industry for 25 years, has been embroiled in a racially charged issue at a news station. The 37-year old meteorologist was also asked to leave her previous job at KXAN in Texas and is now filing a lawsuit claiming she was subjected to "crude, and insensitive remarks about race."

In a similar controversy that garnered national attention, anchor Jennifer Livingston in Wisconsin stood up to a bully who wrote a letter that criticized her for being overweight. Livington, however, was supported by her local station managers who even allowed her to use air-time to address the topic of bullying.

"I'm one of those folks that just can't sit there and let things that need to be addressed go unaddressed, that's probably clearly to my detriment! But that's the kind of person I am. I can't let wrong be wrong," Lee says. "Since the station didn't say anything, I thought here's my chance and let viewers know we do care at KTBS."

The meteorologist's Facebook page, in response to her departure, has received an outpour of support from fans praising her courage and also complimenting her natural African-American look.

As a black woman in a highly public profession, Lee has received more than enough criticism in regards to her race and appearance. Being the first black meteorologist in the Shreveport market, she says that the immense pressure to conform to "European" beauty standards is a growing problem among African-American women pursuing careers in this industry:

"I just wish as an industry, we could just embrace people for who they are and the professionals that we are," she says."My hair should have absolutely no bearing if I make a good forecast or not."

 

 

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