Is Hair Salon Integration a Good Thing?

December 8, 2010  |  

“Excuse me sista, if you ever need someone to do your [dread]locks, here’s my number,” said the woman as she passed me her business card.

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.

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