All Articles Tagged "african american hair industry"
It’s not unusual for me – and I imagine most women – to get stopped on the streets by some random, yet ambitious hairstylist hoping to drum up new business. However, I was taken aback because the “sista” soliciting my business was not the brown-skinned, natural-head woman I had expected, but rather a golden-blonde dreadlock-headed white girl.
As an African American woman living in what some are calling post-racial America, I like to think that I am progressive on most issues related to race and gender. However, my visceral reaction, as regressive as it may sound, was to scoff at the idea of letting a non-person of color play around in my hair. Not that I am against white hairstylists, but could a non-person of color know about the complexity of my roots, when many black stylists are still trying to figure it out?
Apparently, my reaction and feelings about hair segregation might be a thing of the past, at least according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which highlighted the sudden trend of multi-cultural hair salons serving a more integrated clientele.
According to the Inquirer, the recession, along with changing style trends (such as natural hairstyles), has forced hundreds of African American salons across the country to close, leaving many black stylists to take refuge in mainstream hair salons.
The results: mainstream shops like Saks and JCPenney, which rarely courted the black hair care market before, have now become more integrated with white and black stylists working side by side to fry, dye and blow-dry their clientele’s tresses. As wonderfully progressive as it sounds, I wonder if this recent trend is necessarily a good thing.
The general consensus is that hair salons – and barbershops for that matter—have been viewed as the last bastion of acceptable segregated spaces in our society. Historically speaking, these spaces have not only been seen as safe hair havens, but also safe platforms for candid talk about everything from race to relationships.
Black salons and barbershops provide people of color a place where we do not need to bite our tongues for the privileged caste. Because we certainly have to at work, school and every other public space in society that is dominated by the majority.
There was a time when mainstream salons often didn’t want to touch black hair, fearing that they did not have the technical proficiency. In fact, it was recently that a white barber in Vermont set off a firestorm of controversy when he turned away a black doctor out of embarrassment for not being “good at cutting black hair.”
While these examples may denote an air of racial ignorance, it really shouldn’t be that surprising when you consider that many cosmetology certification programs tend to focus on hair technique geared to non-people of color. Moreover, many black stylists themselves learn how to “deal” with ethnic hair only after they have become certified and have been working for some time.
So, is this new trend of hair salon integration, which may hire one or two black stylists to work exclusively on black hair, really about breaking down the racial barrier, or about mainstream hair salons capitalizing off of the misfortunes of black hair salons in a down market?
The reality is that finding a great stylist is a blessing and if a stylist is good than color shouldn’t matter. I have to admit that the white girl with the long golden-blonde locks had wonderful, healthy looking hair. Yet, as we wave the “diversity is great” banner, we must fully understand what we are gaining and losing as a result of these newfound diverse spaces. Besides the lost of a few places where people of color can congregate without inhibition, we are also losing black salon business, which has long been the backbone of the black economy.
Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.
It’s odd but not so odd at the same time. By now, many people expect to walk into a beauty supply store and see a Korean store owner manning the register. Whether you’re in the suburbs of Houston or on MLK Blvd in Anytown, USA, you know what to expect. And yet, walking down a street in a Black neighborhood with Black residents and Black customers buzzing about the retail shops, that image of the few Koreans in the neighborhood only existing behind the cash register of liquor, beauty supply and other retail shops is still perplexing.
But what can explain the seemingly random attraction of Black hair to Korean entrepreneurs? Is it that they love Black hair so much? Was there a plan amongst the first wave of Korean immigrants to hone in on the black hair care industry and dominate the beauty supply store market? From a business perspective, it was no coincidence.
The wig business and the explosion of the wig business in South Korea in the 1960s is instrumental to understanding the Korean ownership of beauty supply stores. According to the book “On My Own: Korean Businesses and Race Relations in America”, the rise of the YH Trade wig manufacturing company was significant. Founder Yung Ho Chang, conceived the idea of the company while working as the vice-director of Korean Trade Promotion Corporation in the U.S. Between 1965 and 1978, his company exported $100 million worth of wigs.
The wig business was doing so well, especially amongst African-American consumers that the Korean Wig Merchants pushed to corner the market. “In 1965, the Korean Wig merchants joined together and convinced the Korean government to outlaw the export of raw hair,” said Aron Ranen, a filmmaker who has documented the marginalization of African-American entrepreneurs in the hair care industry in the film Black Hair. “[This ban] made it so that one can only buy the pre-made wigs and extensions.” In other words, Korean hair could only be manufactured in Korea. “Six months later, the United States government created a ban on any wig that contains hair from China,” effectively putting South Korea in prime position to exploit the market.
The business structure helped set up many Korean entrepreneurs in the sale of wigs and over the past five decades, wig stores have evolved to become full fledged beauty supply stores where hair for weaves and extensions represent the top selling products. Since then, it’s been a chain reaction as one store beget another; family members and employees of one store owner duplicated the business. According to said Dr. Kyeyoung Park, associate professor of anthropology and Asian American Studies at UCLA, competition also played a role in the proliferation. “Korean immigrants are more concerned with peer competition,” she said. “If one is running a business so well, then another Korean will open up a similar business very quickly.”
Today, there are over 9,000 Korean-owned beauty supply stores serving a billion dollar market for Black hair. Between manufacturing, distributing and selling these hair care products, Korean entrepreneurs appear to control all major components. Ranen was inspired to make his documentary because of what he saw as the injustice of unfair business practices.
“It’s really about allowing black manufacturers to get inside the distribution channel,” he said. “‘I mean, if you ask me, ‘what is your vision for the future?’” Well, right away, it’s a 100 black-owned stores opening up right next to Korean stores – a boycott until the Korean stores accept at least 20% black-owned manufactured products. Then we are talking about money in the community.”
According Ranin, there are only four central distributors serving beauty supply stores in the country and these Korean owned distributors discriminate against Black store owners in order to maintain their monopoly in the market. Ranin interviewed Lucky White, the owner of Kizure Ironworks which specializes in making styling tools like curling irons, for his 2006 documentary. Ms. White claimed that distributors told her that her products were no longer in demand as an excuse to turn away her products in favor of knock-offs produced by Asian companies.
Devin Robinson, an economics professor and author of “How to Become a Successful Beauty Supply Store Owner”, organized a boycott last November against Non- Black Owned Beauty Supply stores. “The problem is with the distributors.” he has stated. “Distributors are mainly Non-Blacks and they handpick who they will distribute products to. This oftentimes leaves aspiring black owners disenfranchised.”