I am white, and I understand the chemistry of ALL hair.

Beauty School Drop Out: Why I Never Talk About Beauty School

Cosmetology school was the hardest 1600 hours of my life. Not because I don’t love integumtary sciences, or that I found any of the curriculum particularly difficult. But because it opened my eyes to the depressing reality of beauty school culture across the country.

On day one, a very intimidating, but seemingly powerless, teacher lectured that many students would not make it through the 1600 hours required by the state of California to obtain a license. Looking around the dilapidated classroom filled with girls from every ethnic background by mine, it was hard to imagine who would stand next to me during our state licensing exam and who would be gone before Christmas.

But, as the days wore on, it became clear I was out of my element and I would never again fault Frenchie for leaving beauty school behind.

At first, I watched girls struggle with their book work. It was painfully clear most had slipped through the Oakland school system, byproducts of No Child Left Behind. I helped some who struggled most — they’d never been tested for learning disabilities, despite their inability to follow along as we read in class. These were kids who never learned how to learn.

That was my first lesson — I was not only privileged because of my skin tone and my college degree, but because learning was not a luxury in my formative years.

As curriculm became more difficult and mundane, I watched classmates slip away. Some to pregnancy, despite the lunch room boasting safe sex pamphlets, others to drugs, booze, and sex. There were rumors of prostitution rings, and drug deals. This was not your momma’s beauty school. Or, maybe it was. I had no idea.

Hair pins. The tool that unified us and tore us apart.

Girls changed, hardening, as they muddled through more color and relaxer clients, maybe hitting a joint on break, or taking a swig from a tiny bottle in the bathroom. Any hope for our futures as cosmologists was gone. The repetition, the depression, and the desperation to make it to the other side tore us down. There was no empowerment in this education.

Like most female centric situations, cattiness arose. Stuff was stolen. We were anything but unified. I took a lot more Vicodin back then, and spent a good amount of time hiding in the bathroom. This was the high school nightmare I’d seen so many nerdy girls go through on TV. But in the real world the isolation was draining. I couldn’t handle the self sabotaged I was surrounded by.

The more girls cut class, the longer they would have to attend school. That didn’t stop anyone. Some missed class because they didn’t have the money for bus fair. Other’s went on benders or stayed home to care for their children. They wanted so desperately to change their lives with this certification, but their situations prevented their succcess.

I had never been more aware of my privledge. But simultaneously had the first experience in which my whiteness was a handicap.

Despite a color blind client and stylist policy, the number of times mothers did not want me to flat iron their nine-year-old girl’s hair was astounding. I am primarily white — mothers thought there was no chance I knew how to flat iron curly hair. The tables turned. As I experienced racial prejudice for the first time, I worked through 1600 hours without performing a relaxer on a human head. Because there is no way a Magna Cum Laude white girl undrstands the chemistry behind chemical relaxer.

No. I just hadn’t been performing them in my kitchen since I was ten.

Tools are tools, and hair is hair.

A girl once asked if I’d ever dated a black man. I said “yes.”

“Did he pass the paper bag test?” She asked, taking a swing from a tiny bottle.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I replied, wondering why this conversation was happening.

“It means, was he lighter than a paper bag,” she replied.

“Oh, no,” I answered, “he is beautifully dark.”

Those were the moments I was at a disadvantage because of my whiteness, while simultaneously being at an advantage thanks to educational tools my whiteness provided me. I was conflicted — greatful for my privilege, while wishing my skin allowed me to fit in.

The only thing that got me through was accepting my depression, numbing my feelings, and waiting for the light at the end of the beauty school tunnel.

Today, there are a few girls I’m casually friends with on social media, and others I run in to at Target or Marshalls. Some got through the program, while many slipped through the cracks, indebted to student loans, without a degree to qualify them for a career in cosmetology. Their situations are worse than when they started.

This, is the nature of beauty school. Desperation for a better life is not enough to obtain success.

Now, I don’t think much about the color of my clients’ skin, but I know they often think about mine. I will struggle with prejudice my whole career, but the thing I love about hair is that hair has no ethnicity. No matter the curl pattern, density, porosity, and elasticity everyone’s hair is composed of the same proportions of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfer. On an elemental level, we are all the same. Our hair is color blind. It is beautiful, no matter the scalp it grows from. And it unifies us, whether we realize it or not.