Queen Harrison, Nzingha Prescod and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe talk rocking their natural curls Why hair isn’t an issue for these athletes

Simone Manuel isn’t concerned about what you think of her hair.

Speaking to a room full of swim fans at the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists convention, she shared that she had received flak about the way she wore her hair on the Olympic stage. Though frustrated, she keeps in mind something her mother taught her as a young girl.

“It’s just hair.”

Most sports teams and organizations don’t stipulate how female athletes wear their hair. They are more interested in how well they perform and how often they win. Yet, major televised competitions like the Olympics are often littered with hair commentaries, especially about black female athletes. Gabby Douglas, like Manuel, received criticism about her ’do after she won gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Much of this hair-related shade comes from the public, not the sports industry. The ramifications of such public disapproval can affect decisions including whether to exercise and which jobs to pursue. Although a new wave of natural hair promotion began in 2007, black women have been fighting for social and professional spaces to accept their natural beauty since the 1960s and before.

Nearly 60 years later, natural hair is still considered less beautiful than treated hair. According to a survey from the Perception Institute, 1 in 3 black women said their hair prevents them from working out. Only 1 in 10 white women said the same. Nearly 4,200 men and women were interviewed for this study, which found that black women perceive a level of social stigma against textured hair, and that white women show bias against the textured hair of black women — calling it less beautiful and professional than straight hair.

The Undefeated interviewed three black female athletes in three different sports about their hair and how it affects their lives.

Nzingha PREScod

Olympic fencer Nzingha Prescod attends the AOL Build Speaker Series to discuss 2016 Rio Olympic Fencing at AOL HQ on Aug. 29, 2016, in New York.

Mike Pont/WireImage

Nzingha Prescod is an Olympic medalist in fencing. In 2015, she became the first African-American woman to win an individual medal at the Senior World Championships. Two years earlier, she became the first U.S. women’s foil fencer to win a Grand Prix title. These successes, and the fact that her head is covered by a mask when she competes, haven’t prevented her from feeling self-conscious about her hair.

She’s been experimenting with various hairstyles since she was 12 years old and natural. The desire to fit in middle school coerced her to dye the back of her hair and leave the front natural so she could still wear braids. Everyone in seventh grade had straight hair.

Afterward, she experimented with everything from texturizers to clip-ins. At age 22 and tired of her hair difficulties, she decided to do the “big chop” and cut off all of her chemically processed hair. She says she’s felt free ever since.

“[Cutting off a perm] strips you of anything fake, anything forced. … It’s a purifying self-discovery,” Prescod said.

That wasn’t the only reason behind Prescod getting her hair cut. At fencing practice, her sweat matted her clip-in extensions and entangled them with her natural hair. She had to keep cutting off parts of her hair, which left her with such an undesirable look, she once cried and wore a hood to class. Eventually, she went to a Dominican salon in Spanish Harlem to cut off her uneven, processed hair.

It took some time for to embrace the new ’do, but today, Prescod is confident and encourages women of all hair textures to cut off their hair because of its empowering effect. When she’s not training for fencing, she holds a corporate job in consulting where she typically wears her hair in a pineapple bun.

Despite the fact that various hairstyles are accepted on teams and in the workplace, many black women still believe that natural styles are not valued or considered as professional as straightened ones. The Perception Institute survey stated that 1 in 5 black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work, twice as many as white women. This happens, in part, because straightened hair is often considered to be a sign of professionalism and beauty in corporate settings.

WNBA player Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe and Olympic hurdler Queen Harrison hope the hair freedom allowed in professional sports will nudge corporate aesthetic standards in the same direction.

Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe

Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe of the New York Liberty shoots a layup against the Los Angeles Sparks on Aug. 4 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe is a power forward for the WNBA’s New York Liberty. This Afro-Canadian athlete grew up in British Columbia, where there are very few people of color. Just under 3 percent of the population identify as black. Raincock-Ekunwe’s father is Nigerian, and her mother is white Canadian.

Ekunwe remembers feeling self-conscious as a little girl. Her mother struggled to manage her curls and often put her in braids. She didn’t have the right products to deal with the frizz and the “poofiness” of her hair, and she wanted to fit in with her peers.

She eventually straightened her hair, against her mother’s wishes, opting for flat irons over products that chemically straightened hair (nicknamed “creamy crack”). Consequently, she’d have to wake up two hours before school to complete the process. She continued this regimen through high school, college and part of her WNBA career.

In 2014, she put down the straightener because of unhealthy hair.

“My hair was dry to the point that it would just like crack off, and it was basically straight after I showered and washed my hair. There was no curl pattern, and it was just bad times,” Ekunwe said.

To this day, she tends to receive more compliments from men and women when her hair is flat-ironed straight than when it is natural. Still, that doesn’t stop her from maintaining her brown, corkscrew curls with Shea Moisture and Kinky-Curly products.

“I love it [natural hair]. I’m sad that I embraced my natural hair so late in life. I think curls, kinky hair, coils are just so flattering on so many women,” Ekunwe said.

The only place she’s met formal resistance to her hairstyle of choice was when she played for the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) in Australia. Her teammates discouraged her from wearing braids, citing the league’s concerns that the style is prone to hitting someone in the face during games. According to FIBA guidelines, because of the potential for injury, players are not permitted on the court with free braids in their hair.

She also doesn’t see much natural hair in WNBA advertising.

“When I think of WNBA players in the media, I don’t really think Afros, curls; I think straight hair or Brittney Griner with her locks. You rarely see hair in its natural state; it’s often straightened and curled,” said Ekunwe.

Vincent Novicki, communications director for the Liberty, said they encourage athletes to let their personalities shine. He also said star power is used to determine which athletes are tapped for marketing.

“Who’s been with the team, who’s established themselves … who’s the most identifiable but who has the best ability to kind of reignite and connect with our fans,” Novicki said about the other factors used in advertising. He used Liberty star center Tina Charles as an example because she has natural hair.

Although natural hair may not be abundant in public relations for the league, go to any WNBA game and you will find every style, from Afros to weaves to cornrows.

Queen Harrison

Queen Harrison clears a hurdle in the opening round of the Women’s 100-meter hurdles during Day 2 of the 2017 USA Track & Field Championships at Hornet Stadium on June 23 in Sacramento, California.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The same can be said about black female track athletes. Queen Harrison is an American Olympic hurdler and sprinter. The 28-year-old from Loch Sheldrake, New York, was rocking her natural tresses long before she became a track star. Her parents are members of the religious movement Nation of the Gods and Earths (Five Percenters), and they don’t believe in using relaxers. Harrison remembers being strongly encouraged to cover her hair, which was typically styled in cornrows, with a head wrap in elementary school. Eventually, she learned how to braid and twist her thick hair, and she kept it that way in high school.

During her sophomore year of college, curiosity led her to try a relaxer. She figured the puffiness would be easier to manage. But after almost three years, her hair became limp and flat. The chemical life was not for her, so she, like Prescod, ended up doing the “big chop” and grew out her natural hair.

At that time, Harrison looked nothing like the models she saw in athletic apparel and sports team advertisements. The women featured had straight-haired ponytails and other styles that required straight hair. She thought she would need to conform to be used in advertisements. However, her sponsor, A6, did not object to her rocking her natural hair on the track. Harrison says African-American women have shattered the idea that natural hair is not acceptable in sports.

“My first photo shoot that I ever did … I had my Afro puff in a ponytail. I feel comfortable with coming on set with my hair in a press or coming on set with my hair in a curly twist out. I’ve done all of the above,” said Harrison. She currently wears box braids.

Part of what sets track athletes apart from their female counterparts in basketball and fencers has to do with the wide range of hair and nail styles they rock. From the long weaves to long acrylic nails, women in track seem empowered to display their individuality.

Prescod, Raincock-Ekunwe and Harrison are involved at the highest levels of different sports, but they share the experience of having their natural hair not only accepted but also welcomed in their sports. Too few black women can say they have experienced the same. The “Good Hair” Survey found that a majority of those surveyed, regardless of race, show implicit bias against black women’s textured hair.

Animated short ‘Hair Love’ to show the bond between fathers and daughters Filmmaker Matthew Cherry wants to help ‘normalize’ black fathers

Matthew Cherry’s evolution has taken him from the football field to a stint as a production assistant to music videos. Now, his résumé includes a heartwarming short film in production called Hair Love.

Cherry said the idea for the film came from watching viral videos of fathers interacting with their daughters. In particular, he focused on ones that showed fathers combing their daughters’ hair, which can be both a chore and a bonding experience.

His five-minute animated film is about the relationship between an African-American father, Stephen, his daughter, Zuri, and her hair. Although Stephen has long locks, he is used to his wife doing his daughter’s hair. When she is unavailable right before a big event, Stephen has to figure it out and concludes that Zuri’s hair has a mind of its own.

Cherry said the “story was born out of seeing a lack of representation in mainstream animated projects, and also wanting to promote hair love amongst young men and women of color. It is our hope that this project will inspire.” He took to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to fund the film. His initial goal was $75,000. To date he has raised almost $252,000, making Hair Love the best-funded short film in the history of Kickstarter.

Cherry, 35, is a former college wide receiver. In his four-year career at the University of Akron, he finished with nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. After college, he played for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens. In 2007, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment, landing work as a production assistant.

“I was just Matt the PA, and I was here to work,” Cherry said. “I was here to learn and work the game from the ground up, and that’s how I kind of got my foot in the door.”

He has worked on more than 40 commercials and was a director for more than 20 music videos for singers and entertainers such as Michelle Williams, Tweet, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred The Family Soul, Snoop Dogg, The Foreign Exchange, Bilal, N’Dambi, Maysa Leak, Dwele, Najee, K’Jon and Take 6.

Cherry’s film The Last Fall received awards at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) for Best Screenplay and Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) for the HBO Best Feature Film Award. After a limited theatrical release, it made its television premiere on BET in December 2012 and is currently streaming on Netflix and Hulu. He recently released a short film, Forward, which premiered on Ebony.com. He also writes and directs the award-winning web series Almost 30 and Almost Home.

Cherry has one sister (visual artist Caitlin Cherry) and grew up on the northwest side of Chicago.

“Sports was a big part of both of our lives growing up,” he said. “I played baseball ever since I was 5. Football ever since I was 6. Played three sports in high school. Had a full scholarship for football in college. … My existence was very much kind of tied into sports growing up.”

Cherry spoke with The Undefeated about his transition out of football, positive representation of black fathers in the media and normalizing black families.


What was your inspiration for Hair Love?

The biggest, and I think the most important, is just we’re seeing a big lack of representation in that computer-generated, animated world.

We really haven’t seen a lot black characters in that space. Bebe’s Kids was the first animated feature film directed by a black director. That came out in 1992; 25th anniversary was a couple of days ago. Peter Ramsey was the first African-American director to direct a CGI [computer-generated imagery] animated film. That was like two or three years ago, Rise of the Guardians. I think in between that time, there’s really only been those two black directors that have done like a full-length feature film in the animated space.

So we only really have had in recent years maybe four or five examples of full-length feature films that really tell our story. But a lot of times you don’t really see the whole, full family dynamic, particularly in these computer-generated feature films. The biggest thing for me is just like really seeing that lack of a presentation. … I don’t have kids myself right now, but got a serious girlfriend, and one day we’re going to get married and be having kids, and I really wanted to make sure that when I did have kids that they had a character that they could relate to.

When you look at mainstream media, and you see all the images, black hair isn’t made out to be the norm. It’s not meant to be the standard of beauty. We have a very Eurocentric standard of beauty in America, and if you watch TV, if you pick up a magazine, if you look at different things, you’re not going to see yourself represented. … You don’t see your curly, kinky hair on these different models, on these different actors and actresses, on these different music videos, etc. It can really do damage to your self-confidence and how you perceive yourself.

That’s why my biggest thing with this project, first and foremost, was just to really hopefully have some characters that were human, that showed black families in a complex but also simple manner, and just have characters that people can relate to but then try to help increase that diversity in the animation world, because representation is everything. I think my biggest thing is if a little girl can see Zuri or see Stephen, and see themselves represented, if it makes them feel better about themselves, to me, mission accomplished.

Who did you consult with about dads, daughters and hair?

I’ve actually had this idea for a couple years. I always thought it would be cute to do a story about a dad trying to do his daughter’s hair. I’ve seen a lot of kind of online videos, and my main dad friends who have kids, they’re always posting pictures and videos online of their failed attempts of trying to do their son’s and daughter’s hair, and just always thought that that would be a really cool angle to hit, particularly because the whole black father angle. I think, again, in mainstream media, we’re really nonexistent.

We look at a lot of these movies and TV shows, they always depict black dads as deadbeats, nonexistent, abusive. These fathers, they’re getting girls pregnant, running off, that whole thing, and while obviously in every race, every group, you have that negativity, but it’s always made out in the black community like that’s just all black men are. We just are deadbeat dads. We’re not in our kids’ lives.

So for me it was just really important to normalize black fathers, normalize black families. And really I think in starring a young black father and his daughter, I think that would just do wonders to kind of help normalize those images, because it’s important.

What’s been the most difficult part of moving from football to filmmaking?

The most difficult part of my journey is feeling like you have to constantly create your own opportunities. Like, to this day, nobody’s ever hired me for anything. All my opportunities have been self-generated in some fashion. Outside the music video world, from feature films to short films, it’s all been stuff that I either created with some friends or I created on my own, and sometimes it gets frustrating because you feel like, ‘I made this. This premiered at a major festival. Help me.’

Help me get to the next level. I did the work. I followed the blueprint. I did everything that they say you’re supposed to do in order to have somebody help you get to the next level. …

You make all these sacrifices like putting your mom’s life insurance money into the making of your first movie. It comes out, hey, you get a little bit of press, but nobody hires you. Damn. OK. You go away for a couple years. You do random things to kind of stay alive. Then my second feature film, 9 Rides. We shoot it on iPhones and that’s the thing that gets you noticed and gets you an agent and then you realize that all the work you and your team put in mattered after all.

They’ve seen us doing the short films for no budget. They’ve seen us doing the music videos. They’ve seen us doing these feature films and all this other stuff, so. I think the biggest, most difficult part of the journey has just been having to continuously create your own opportunities to kind of continue to put yourself in the game, and I think that there’s a lesson in that, in that you can’t predict what’s going to be the thing that hits, or is going to be the thing that helps put you on. You’ve just got to keep working, keep grinding, and eventually something’s going to hit, or eventually someone’s going to help.

Do you miss football?

Not at all. Not in the least. No, I don’t, especially with all this news about what’s been going on with players’ heads and CTE. I’m actually glad that I didn’t play too long. People have been playing since they were 5 years old, too. You know what I mean? Between Pop Warner, high school, college, you might have your five or 10 years in the league, but if you’re 25 you might have played for 20 years.

How did you prepare for your career after sports?

I studied radio, TV, broadcast and media production in college. I interned at a lot of radio stations, and I was the music director at my college radio station at the University of Akron. I interned up at the Cleveland radio stations, KISS and then on WENZ. And so I would always be kind of dabbling in production, but more of an audio-radio side, and it was something I was really interested in. I loved cutting promos, loved working with all these other kind of post-production programs, and I kind of knew even in college that whenever I got done playing ball I’d either be working in radio or some level of entertainment on the production side of things.

I signed as an undrafted free agent. My rookie year with the Jacksonville Jaguars, I knew after training camp, I was like, “Yeah. I’ve got to get my plan B together,” because it was just so political. When you come in as an undrafted free agent it’s like being a walk-on, so all these things have to happen that are outside of your control in order for you to make it. Guys will generally have to get hurt or traded and all these other things. It’s not really about how you perform, necessarily. It’s about, ‘OK, can you justify putting this guy in over the guy we’re paying millions of dollars?’

And I knew literally in training camp like, ‘Yeah. This is kind of unfair. I’m doing my thing, but I’m still not getting rewarded for it on the field.’ I actually got cut during training camp, and then they re-signed me to the practice squad. That’s how they do it, and I learned when I first got cut by just feeling there was nothing more I could have done. I felt like I balled out. I did everything that I should have done to be able to make the regular team, and it didn’t happen for me.

What’s up next after Hair Love?

This has all been a roller-coaster ride. The biggest thing for me is just really trying to just continue to do projects that are personal to me. Things that I really love. We hope to be able to use the characters from Hair Love and turn it into a feature film

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Colin Kaepernick’s hair is not our business. Michael Vick telling him to cut it is a problem. Vick’s job advice to the free-agent QB is one of the oldest plays in the ‘black isn’t beautiful’ playbook

When I was an intern at the Kalamazoo Gazette, one of the longtime reporters there pulled me aside to offer up a piece of advice: Cut your hair. More specifically, he said I wouldn’t get a job in journalism with “those things in your hair.” I could see the Jheri curl juice pooling in the pores of his forehead as he spoke.

I initially started growing my locs because of Speech from Arrested Development. As my hair grew along with my taste in music, I learned Bob Marley was a lot more political than the songs on his greatest hits compilation Legend would indicate. Still, I had not considered my locs to be a statement until I was told my hair was a problem by a black man who had relaxed his.

Of course, he was wrong.

But I can’t definitively say having locs didn’t cost me something along the way. Natural black hair makes some people uneasy. Long natural black hair can be downright frightening. Especially for the folks who unwittingly buy into the outlandish propaganda that deems Eurocentric features as the singular standard of beauty. The propaganda that helps fuel the millions spent on black hair care products such as relaxers and weaves and drives plastic surgery in Asia.

On an episode of The Talk, Sheryl Underwood jokingly said Afro hair was “nasty” before praising white hair as “beautiful.” It was like watching a skit from In Living Color minus the satire.

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This is why it’s difficult to entirely dismiss Michael Vick’s assertion that Colin Kaepernick needed to cut his hair to find a job in the NFL. We all know his hair has nothing to do with his play, but it does play a part in how he is viewed.

Consider that earlier this week NPR published a fascinating, and disturbing, report on the rash of little black girls being suspended from school for wearing their hair naturally. In September 2016, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that employers can ban natural hairstyles. The case started when Chastity Jones, a black woman in Alabama, was told by a white human resources rep that her locs were against company policy because they “tend to get messy.”

Even the iconic Viola Davis admitted that ditching her wigs and wearing her natural hair at the 2012 Oscars was an act of bravery.

I repeat: bravery.

That reporter at the Kalamazoo Gazette didn’t mean anything malicious when he told me to cut my hair. Based upon his worldview, I am sure he believed he was doing me a favor. Just as Vick didn’t mean anything malicious when he talked about Kap’s ’fro, he was just suggesting he play the game. Notice he didn’t suggest Riley “I will jump back in and fight every n—– here” Cooper needed to cut his long hair before welcoming him back into the Philadelphia Eagles locker room, as Cooper doesn’t need to play the game. Or at least not the one blacks have been told they needed to play since Juneteenth. The problem, of course, is that the game’s rules keep changing.

We can relax our hair, cut our Afros, smear on bleaching cream, turn our laughter down or pull our pants up in a pointless effort to be more “presentable,” as Vick said. But embracing respectability politics as some sort of cure-all for systemic racism doesn’t end this game.

It just takes it into overtime.