JC Penny’s Doesn’t Do “Black Hair”

Brenda McElmore went to JC Penny’s to get her hair dyed black and was denied service.

According to KTLA, McElmore was told, “We don’t do African-American hair.” She was then directed to elsewhere for hairstyling needs.  For McELmore it triggered a time of growing up under Jim Crow laws, wherein blacks were routinely denied services based on the colour of our skin.  She has since filed suit against JC Penny.  The company responded by sending the following letter.

“Let me apologize again for the customer service experience you had in our store. As we discussed, our salon receptionist felt that we did not have the technical  proficiency… to perform the service you required. She may not however have  expressed this to you in a way that was not offensive. For this I again apologize. Because customer service is … so important to our company, we would rather not attempt the service if we cannot perform it as required.”

Isn’t that beautiful lawyer speak for your hair is too nappy and untamable to deal with.   The woman wasn’t asking for a hair treatment, or a hair style that was specifically Afrocentric, she was asking for a damn dye job.  If the salon does not have someone there that can colour hair, then they are not a hair salon. 

You know on second thought, even if she was asking for a perm, corn rows, or a weave, why should she not have been able to walk into a hair salon and expect them to be able to cater to her needs.  Hair care is one of the few industries that continues to be divided by race.  One look at the magazines in the waiting area will let you know if you are in the right place or not. 

This continues largely because black hair is deemed to difficult to deal with. Somehow the white hairdressers cannot be proficiently trained to deal with the high maintenance needs of a black woman….oh no their delicate hands can only deal with the silky locks of white people.  In all of the years I have been going to salons, I have only ever been to one that catered to both white and black women alike.    The segregation is so normalized that black hair care even has its own aisle at Walmart and Shoppers Drug mart.

We never stop to ask ourselves what this means because we have become accustomed to the segregation.  As a woman that lives in a small town that is mostly inhabited by Italians, I can tell you that this has lead me to develop home solutions to any hair issues that I may have because I cannot find anyone to cut, or style my hair.   I have friends that drive 40 minutes to Buffalo from Niagara Falls, On to get their hair done. 

Imagine having to cross an international border to get your hair done because no one can be bothered to offer you a service that you clearly want and or need. Think about the idea of a profession that specializes according to race, and what that means.  By simply refusing to learn specific skills they can daily exclude blacks from patronizing their business; thus creating an all white environment.  The analogy McELmore made to the Jim Crow south is quite correct. 

It is my sincere hope that she wins this suit.  Discrimination by default is not appropriate.  An industry should not be able to legally discriminate by failing to mandate that all who require a license learn how to cater to all potential customers.  

It is time to move away from the point where whites think that they can treat us like we are animals in a  petting zoo; an exotic other to assuage  their curiosity. It is not at all accidental that when the touch is required for the sake of servicing a need, blacks are told to go elsewhere.  Historically blacks have served whites, and for a white salon to “lower” itself to accept black clients is threatening to the social hierarchy that whites have worked so hard to preserve. 

Failing to insure proper training not only maintains a segregated service area, it insures that serving white needs is what continues to remain valuable.  Consider that blacks would have to remit payment for services rendered and still yet we are not deemed worthy of being served.  If payment would negate or in anyway challenge the overvaluation of whiteness if at all possible it will be refused.  Even though it would clearly be in the best interest to learn to serve blacks as it would clearly add to the profit margins, white hairdressers continue to cater solely to white clientele.  This is yet another example wherein racism not only hurts the party that it is being aimed at but the whites that are performing the racist act.  Whiteness is only as valuable as we socially create it to be.

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