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2020 has been challenging, to say the least, but while many things are being put on hold, many voices previously silenced are being given the opportunity to speak. I spoke with Manifest’s Andrene Ward-Hammond about her experience being black in the industry.
Racism has always been an issue in America, and as the Black Lives Matter movement picked up steam in recent months, many of us have wondered, why? What changed? I asked Ward-Hammond what had changed for her, specifically, in regards to her career, and she said:
For me, the change has been that there is more, we feel more comfortable being vocal about some of the micro-aggressions within the industry.
Micro-aggressions are something I’m sure every minority has dealt with in some capacity, either in school or in a workplace, and it can be very difficult learning how to navigate that experience. Ward-Hammond said of working in entertainment,
I’ve had some, you know, sour experiences where folks didn’t know how to do my hair, where like, I go prepared just in case they don’t know the products to use or they don’t listen to me when I say ‘this works’ or ‘this doesn’t work’ ...
It’s them doing your makeup, your hair, and not feeling beautiful when you go on camera, or you prepare yourself before you go to set so you’re essentially doing the job that should’ve been done because who knows what’s going to happen when you get there?
For those who wear makeup every day, you already know the time and effort that it takes. But to work in a place where there are people hired to do it for you, and they do it for everyone else on set but have you to do your own at home because they aren’t familiar with your particular hair texture and complexion… that’s beyond unsettling.
I asked Andrene if she’d elaborate on any of the aforementioned “sour experiences” and she told me of an incident where she went in the car and cried after. She auditioned for a commercial with her natural hair out and curly, fro-ish, with beach wavy curls, and then said this about when she went in for the fitting:
I had it up in a puff and one of the producers walked by and I said ‘I haven’t spoken with anybody about my hair, what should I do with it?’ He literally went, ‘oooo mmmm that’s.... I don’t know that’s not me’ and I remember getting a note after the audition that I could book the project if I tamed my hair.
If she TAMED HER HAIR?! What does that even mean? I cannot even begin to count all of the ways we as black women are able to wear our hair. “Tame” could mean straight, but it could also mean curly with anti-frizz product applied. It could mean a protective style like braids, but it could also mean natural (clearly not a natural puff, according to this guy)... you see where I’m going with this.
Ward-Hammond went on to explain that this experience caused her to straighten her hair for every audition so it wouldn’t be an issue. As auditions picked up, she had her hair pressed so often that it began to fall out.
When needed for their role, actors often accept multiple hair treatments and chemicals that eventually cause damage, just ask Tom Felton or Ariana Grande. However, agreeing to a color treatment to become the character you’ve booked is completely different than styling your hair in a damaging way for auditions because your natural hair may be a deterrent if no one on set knows what to do with it.
Beyond the hair notes, people of color also have to take acting notes that their white counterparts will never receive. Andrene nodded when I mentioned this, and she said it's usually something like:
Urban, sassy, it’s all, they want rotation of neck... This is the only way that we’re seen. There’s so much more to us! We do have flavor, but there’s so many stories to tell and there aren’t enough of us who have the platform to tell them, so we get locked into that. That’s how our stories have been for so long that it’s the only way they see us. That’s the only thing that makes us different. This.
I have a pretty good idea what goes through the actor’s mind when receiving this type of feedback: I want this job. I can be “urban” as they say. Well, how badly do I want this job? If I am the only black lead in the film and the character is written stereotypically, do I want to be a part of that and add fuel to the one way society sees us? Ward-Hammond agreed with my sentiments, saying:
That shows what people they need behind the scenes as well, it needs to be more diverse. They need people that can do kinky-curly hair. Not black hair, but kinky-curly. The idea that that is considered black hair is... the whole dynamic of it is rather strange and you know exactly where you stand when they have to prep you for it.
Season 2 of Manifest had just wrapped filming before film and tv productions were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Season 3 has since been announced. I was most curious to hear how Ward-Hammond sees her work environments changing when productions resume.
I’m really excited to get back to work, period, but to know that you almost feel alone, and I came up in this thing where I didn’t have a lot of friends within it, so you don’t know what’s right or wrong, or what you should do, so you kind of mute your voice a little bit so that you don’t come off too abrasive or aggressive or you get too much pushback, especially [as] a black woman so it feels really good to know that other people are now speaking up and saying no, this is my experience and this is how I feel and you should say something about it.
I couldn't agree more. Everyone should feel safe enough to voice a discomfort, without the fear of losing their job over it or being perceived as difficult. Of course there are tasteful and distasteful ways to address issues in the workplace, but the conversations need to be had. It all starts with people being given the opportunity to speak, and it seems that is one good thing that 2020 has brought us.