Desegregate the Beauty Section
Is it time for Suave and Pantene to make room for Shea Moisture & Carol’s Daughter?
I want to begin this piece recognizing my inadequacy in speaking on this topic to the fullest extent as one could because I am a man. Though I share many of the same issues that any Black person has with their hair, I acknowledge the unique challenges, stigma, and stereotypes around Black women and their relationship with their hair and beauty. With that said, I will try not speak on specifics or keep specificity related to my experience as a Black man who recognizes a larger complexity for our Black sisters. This is a topic that I have, for a long time, felt is important to speak about publicly; but, I have felt conflicted as to whether I am the appropriate vehicle. I still have those questions; so, in that vein, I am hoping that this piece sparks a larger dialogue that is Black women-led and that my male privilege is the entrypoint for the conversation to be had. Many thanks to Tina & Dara for their feedback.
In my home, like in any Black home, is a hair cabinet — that cabinet next to the main bathroom with all of the presumably hundreds of hair care products, many of them redundant and half-used (they’re never used up, just thrown out in place of a new one when it’s overstayed its rent-free visit). Accompanying these products are at least 3 curling irons — 1, maybe 2, of them work, hundreds of brushes that go seemingly as far as to the birth of you (or your parents), 3–6 different bonnets and shower caps, and at least Danish butter cookie tins full of rollers/curlers and the like. Also, there is shea butter, a yellow stick of old cocoa butter, some baby oil, and Vaseline depending on your stage of ashiness. If this sounds familiar in any way to your home, then you’re in or been in a Black home. In my room, moreover, are the day-to-day essentials that I use — raw shea butter, cocoa butter Vaseline, Jamaican Black Castor Oil and beard balm, Isoplus Oil Sheen, that green olive oil hair moisturizer bottle, Luster’s Pink hair Lotion, Blue Magic hair grease, Carol’s Daughter leave-in conditioner, and more. For many Black folks, my personal beauty care items are distinctly Black and emblematic of any Sally’s Beauty Supply store in America. That’s a good thing — a common thread of community. But, are these products just for us? Why are they bought primarily or solely by us? Is that a good thing? Or, is it something more?
These are some of the questions that crossed my mind as I was in Target (though this could be said of Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, or any other mainstream chain store or pharmacy) to pick up some Shea Moisture Raw Shea Butter for my skin; and, undoubtedly, I instinctively went where I knew it was — with the other colorful, African-themed products for purchase. And then, knowing that I was in the general beauty section, I looked up to see the sign that said “Textured Hair & Beauty” (or “Ethnic” at other places) which is always code for The Blacks. Subconsciously, I always knew that these stores had a “Black Beauty Section” because those are the aisles you NEVER see white people go down unless accompanied by a mixed-race child. These “Black Beauty Sections” are some of the earliest cognitive cues of race and differentiation from white society for Black people. In the beauty sections of these stores, specifically in regards to hair & skin care, there is an obvious — even blatant or intentional — segregation of the mainstream products from the “ethnic” or “textured hair” products that became cogent within me. Also, the “Black” products are typically marked at higher prices, but more on that later. To be honest, I don’t know whether to be thankful for these “ethnic” sections that create a space for us and our need or to be offended by it, so I’ll settle for both. This segregation is corroborated when you look at the products offered and the clientele differences between Ulta Beauty Stores and Sally’s Beauty Supply. Ulta is particularly whiter in hue and offers more mainstream (read: white) products, while Sally’s has been a staple in the Black community.
Segregation of beauty products have sadly been ingrained into society for as long as Black people have been enslaved in the Americas. Black skin and curly coarse hair are the two major distinguishable differences from white people; and, they’ve been subsequently used by whites as a sign of inferiority to validate their enslavement of our ancestors. When looking at racist imagery of Antebellum & Jim Crow America, you see images of pickaninnies, golliwogs, sambos, mammies, Black Bucks and sapphires with the blackest of skin and nappiest of hair. When performing blackface minstrelsy, whites used burnt cork to blacken their faces and darken their hair/wigs and used coarse wigs to mimic Black hair. These physical traits were weaponized and derided as a primitive, inferior, dangerous, and a threat to white society and thus America as a whole. So, that is why you see advertisements for soaps and bleaching creams and other beauty items, from the time, feature imagery that literally scrubs the black off of us. That is also why Black barbers, beauticians, and estheticians, like Madam CJ Walker, were and still are so important. Sadly, however, these segregated beauty practices and racist imagery persists around the world in African and Asian countries.
In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth & Mamie Clark conducted a series of studies on Black children in segregated DC schools and integrated NYC schools. The children were presented to two completely identical dolls except for 1 being white with yellow hair and the other being brown with black hair. They were asked which doll they would play with, which one is the nice or bad doll, which has the nicer color, and other similar questions. The studies showed a clear preference for the white doll and that early on Black (and all) children can start perceiving race as a stratifying factor. Also, it showed that internalized racism in Black children and self-hatred was more acute for those in segregated schools. Altogether, the studies demonstrated that segregation harms society at its very core. The Clark doll studies were used in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to underscore the damaging effects of school segregation and “separate but equal” as a policy du jure in America. If that is the case, then why do we still have segregated beauty sections? Are they causing psychological harm to Black people while also reinforcing implicit bias within whites?
Another factor in the segregation of the American beauty section to consider is the lack of Black ownership of hair and skin companies as well as Black-owned beauty distributors and wholesalers and the lack of Black-owned beauty stores. Carol’s Daughter, Shea Moisture, Pattern, Bevel, and Buttah are the leading Black-owned major hair and skin product lines in major retailers. Bevel and many other Black-owned hair and skin enterprises are subscription-based and primarily online. As a result of a lack of Black-ownership at any level of the beauty industry, there are many Black enterprises that struggle as they have to charge higher costs to make-up for overhead and other costs, which typically deters Black shoppers who are likely to be low-income or choose to buy lower cost mainstream options. Ultimately, this hurts us all! These lower cost mainstream brands are a host of white-owned conglomerates like Unilever or Asian brands, which implement all-white marketing teams using discriminatory branding of Black beauty products. However, there is hope that with smaller Black brands emerging to serve our needs; but, they will need access to capital and larger appeals to expand beyond subscription-based and into major chain stores. The distribution and wholesalers dictate how much and who to ship what products to which plays a factor when there’s implicit bias with them being all-white operations. Lastly, the non-chain beauty supply stores are primarily owned by Asian, specifically Koreans, and Arab immigrants. They have built a national infrastructure around Black beauty supply stores. This has made it hard for Black to enter into this industry and gain any leverage in selling products to their own people in their own communities. How do we build, not just businesses, but equity and infrastructure into the Black beauty industry to help serve our own and create community revenue and resources? Can we work intersectionally with the Asian and Arab communities to collaborate in Black beauty supply needs?
Then, another factor in the perpetuation of beauty aisle segregation is white people. Specifically, white people in the same context that we’ve talked about them regarding the recent Black Lives Matter protests against racial inequity and injustice. We need white people to advocate for, to ally with, and to push these white conglomerates to de-racialize their products and for stores to desegregate these products. We need white people to learn and understand that these products, especially skin products, are able to be purchased and used by white people. Cocoa and shea butters do not just work wonders on Black skin only. We need more than just words and well wishes, we need white dollars to support and use black owned beauty companies. And, even hair products can be used by white folks who may have curlier hair that is reminiscent of my “textured” or “ethnic” hair. There needs to be an understanding and education regarding Black beauty products having universal application and necessity. No Black beauty product should be shelved or sold separately from white mainstream products and marketed as being different and exclusively for that specific race. If I can buy Suave and Aveeno, then Karen can buy Shea Moisture and Blue Magic. And, quiet as it’s kept, Karen is more likely to be able to afford it than I am too.
I also acknowledge and agree with the counterargument that Black people and Black beauty companies do not need white saviors to help them grow. I acknowledge that we do not need white people to buy Black hair products, and that the Black beauty aisles are one of our few places of refuge and community. According to Essence magazine, Black folks spend $1.2 trillion annually on beauty products. We have the funds and the ability to pay for the things we care about the most — our appearance. We should be investing in ourselves and to continue creating products for us, by us. Will they cost more? Yes, but if we like something, we are willing to pay the price for it. There are many Black folks, understandably, who do not want white folks buying their Shea Moisture or Carol’s Daughter, because there may be a shortage or some white blogger will act like they invented black soap and cause an uproar. After all, white people have entire AISLES dedicated to their products. I get that sentiment and agree with it too.
In all, the history of segregation in beauty products goes back to slavery and has seen many iterations and reincarnation, domestically and abroad, which has damaged our own psyche as well as warped implicit bias of whites and non-Black minorities towards Blacks. The damaging effects of segregation to self-esteem and self-worth are internalized and the impacted have been tested, observed, and experienced by Blacks in a myriad of ways including beauty. There needs to be economic opportunity and equity for Blacks to enter every level of the beauty industry and then be able to reshape narrative and marketing and access of Black products. And, white allies and advocates are needed to support desegregation and leverage their purchasing power to support Black products — and not just because they are Black but because they are high quality and are just as effective on white skin and hair as it is Blacks. How can we detangle systemic racism and inequity when we can’t even get shampoo and conditioner in the same beauty section as whites?