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Why Hair Salons Are Still One of the Most Segregated Spaces in America

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Although the beauty industry claims it’s one of diversity and inclusion, salon segregation is a skeleton in the closet no one talks about. 

Unless you’ve experienced it firsthand, you might not realize it actually exists by design. After all, most of us take our hair care needs seriously and we know the consequences of a salon experience gone horribly wrong. So for good reason, we tend to stick with what and who we know. 

We don’t always discuss the reasons why we choose our salons or hair stylists. And when we do, most pertain to central criteria like technical skills and dependability. But, those surrounding race are often left out of the discussion. 

Perhaps it’s because race is already a given.    

Next to churches, hair salons and barbershops are arguably two of the remaining establishments that are separated by race. Institutional racism is so deeply ingrained in the hair care industry it’s often missed. Unless we witness clear inflammatory language or are overtly mistreated, we don’t always think to consider (or share) why it’s okay for some hair care professionals to have no experience or knowledge about certain hair types, particularly textured hair. However, I believe the why is important to understand because it is a significant part of American history-a byproduct of the abolishment of slavery; and the establishment of the Jim Crow era.

Colonial Roots

When it comes to white ancestral benefits from free Black labor, hair care is also included. According to historian Nic Butler, Ph.D., as shared during his Soundcloud podcast, “The Colonial Roots of Black Barbers and Hairdressers” for the Charleston Time Machine, he discusses how, for centuries, slave owners depended on the enslaved to tailor, dress and style their hair. As the number of “free persons of color” increased in the late eighteenth century, those with hairdressing skills opened segregated barbershops and salons, primarily catering to white patrons. 

As a result, generations of Black hair technicians dominated the trade well into the middle of the twentieth century, but the politics of desegregation birthed two ironic, contrasting shifts: scores of legitimately Black-owned, thriving entities and, unfortunately, a strengthened imposition of Eurocentric beauty standards.

White mainstream society upheld its hierarchy that places people with European features (straight hair) above those with African features (textured hair). The “it” hairstyles of the time were those like the pompadour, the Gibson Girl and Marcel Waves – all named after white people. It forced Black hair professionals (mostly Black women) to emulate these hairstyles by straightening and manipulating their hair in order to maintain professional relevance and avoid damaging societal disadvantages. By way of the intense pressure, parallel industries emerged; and salons separately serviced clients of European and African descent.

Beauty Schools are Complicit in the Bias

Today, racism continues to be a driving force in the hair salon industry because when white hair was set as the standard of beauty, it was also set as the standard for education.

For me, a now 20-year hair professional, the disparity was obvious in cosmetology school. Back then, the curriculum was devoid of teachings for all hair textures, so my initial accredited training and testing was primarily based on the understanding and mastery of European hair. Any stint of time spent on less-straight textures was minuscule at best, often backed with instructions on how to make it straight. Consequently, the impact disproportionately affected myself, among countless Black individuals, whether as hair professionals or as paying customers. When I graduated from cosmetology school and decided the cultivation of diverse hair types would best serve my ambitions, I had to spend countless hours (and money) seeking out continuing education for all things textured hair on my own.    

Sadly, racial inequalities don’t end with education. The ideology filters into all branches of the hairdressing industry, including the salon system, where in predominantly white spaces, Black customers often don’t receive the same relaxing experiences as whites; and where only Black hairdressers are often required to service clients with wavy, curly or coily hair, imposing more labor. Editorial sets and backstage hair styling at fashion shows (where service rates are typically more lucrative and high-profile) are mostly influenced by Eurocentric representation and, in turn, favor white hairstylists. 

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A Brighter Future

Today, Black hair care titans like Tippi Shorter are leading the charge to break down race barriers by highlighting an awareness that supports a diverse hair society. Through initiatives such as her Texpert Collective (an organization that connects aspiring hairstylists of all races with education and training in textured hair) and beauty schools like the Beautiful Luxe School of Cosmetology in Michigan (where proper styling techniques of textured hair are a priority in their curricula), we get to finally see hairdressing for what it should be: a common, all-embracing, human experience.   

For an old hair dog like myself, it’s nice to finally watch the hairdressing industry evolve a bit. I believe a broader exposure to the concept of hair texture is important to work, one that will continue to introduce and implement it as a standard, not as a specialty or ethnicity. 

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