Wednesday, October 29, 2008

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.


AR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

The best part about nonwhite hair is how you're expected to apologize, excuse, or even explain your hair.

Did that hairdresser apologize for his/her incompetence? Is she forced to say, "my grandmother was *insert ethnicity here* therefore I'm somehow inferior and inconvenient to you?"

I expect to walk into a salon and have my hair cut. I have learned better. I walk into a salon, scope it out for nonwhite customers and hairdressers. If I don't see any, I turn around and walk right back out again. Next time, I'm going to have some demands.

outcrazyophelia said...

That's funny because when I dye my hair, I can use the boxes with white women on them and it turns out just the same. I didn't realize that my hair was such a problem. I'm also calling shennanigans on the concept that they've never had to deal with black hair in their training. They get albeit limited exposure to a variety of hair types--otherwise they'd be giving the same spiel to people with curly hair, or very long, or very short hair. Just because they don't regularly have to deal with it (since I'm sure black customers get the vibe and don't bother) doesn't mean they do not have the capability. They're just more comfortable not doing it and I guess were really hoping no black people ever wanted anything from their salon.

This also makes me wonder about the whole beautician license issue. If the traditional course is focused on white hair types and styling, then how does it work if you want to service the black community? Are the classes/courses segregated too? Or are the people who want to work in the black community expected to learn how to treat white hair in class and learn how to deal with black hair on their own?

In a way I'm glad companies like this shun black business--if they're too stupid to realize that black women spend the MOST money on their hair than any other group and they air out their racist tendencies in public, it gives me better notice as a consumer not to bother. I prefer it to that intangible feeling that they want you to go away when you step into the salon.

harrietsdaughter said...

Great post, Renee. This is at one a real problem and an opportunity for building solidarity among students of African descent on predominantly white college campuses, like where my mom went to school, where I went to school, and where I teach now - getting our hair done, getting it cut, whatever. Enterprising students (with skills, mind you) are able to make money because they have a captive audience. Black Student Union orientation - and black admissions staff people (if the schools have them, that is...) learn that they need to be able to say - this is where you can go to get your hair done. And often it IS way out of town.

Another reason to go natural. But that still doesn't erase the need for grooming. I would love to have a local place or person to work with my and my locks... but for the past few years its been all self maintainance.

BeccaTheCyborg said...

Hair really is still amazingly segregated. in my tiny town, there wasn't even the tiny section hidden away from the giant wall of white hair products of products for black hair until we got a Wal-Mart. It's only been in the last couple of years that we've gotten a salon for POC. Which is alarming, because I know from a stylist friend that at the beauty schools here, they spend exactly one day on black hair. One.

Also interesting is that if you even have white-girl curly hair, they occasionally deny service if it's "too curly" and you like it that way, as a loved one of mine has found out many times. It's all based around the ideal of straight, white hair.

space said...

The only reason I can think of for idealizing straight hair is white supremacy: black people and sometimes even curly-haired white people wanting to look more like the Nordic ideal because that's what gets shoved in their faces. Straight hair is kind of boring. The only upside of it is convenience. I do like that aspect of it. I can walk into any salon and get a quick, cheap haircut.

My hairdresser is black and works with all races and both sexes. Imagine if she turned down white clients, because their hair was too "delicate" and she could not express her full creativity styling it! She probably wouldn't be able to make it in the business.

Danyell said...

Wow. That's such ridiculous racism for something that should be so simple. Where did these people train that they can't do Black hair? And btw, I find it really annoying when people use the term "African-American" when they're saying or something racist. As if the PC term counter-acts everything else.

Though I don't personally have a lot of experience with the prejudice of hair (I'm long over trying to make my hair do something it won't. I just cut it short and leave it alone), but I have seen all the signs. I was in a Duane Reade and they had one aisle for "hair care" and another one for "ethnic hair care". Ethnic? ETHNIC? WTF!! I hate that term, because it re-enforces "otherness"- as if White is normal, everyone else is "ethnic", when really all people have an ethnicity. And the idea that hair care has to be separated. If the boxes touch, do they explode?

Although, I didn't realize that JC Penny's did hair.

T. R Xands said...

Oh wow, that reminds me of the time I went into a Supercuts and the woman flat out told me she didn't do "ethnic hair" (the proceeded to cut a middle eastern guy's hair...oh well). Me and my mother just looked each other and giggled because she was so flustered about it. Then a white guy came in and cut my hair just fine. Hair being so segregated is really amazing and absurd.

Ashley said...

The thing I've noticed isn't that hair stylists are only trained on white hair, it's that they're only trained on straight hair. I have met 1 stylist in my 24 years of life who knew how to handle my hair, and she then moved away.

Nancy said...

That's exactly right, Ashley. I have curly hair (I am white) and no one, except "black hairdressers" seems to know how to cut it.

Tina said...

Ahh well, there goes any hope for Penney's for me shopping there!


Heather said...

Interesting post, and one that brings up a whole host of issues. The politics of hair is so ugly -- and pervasive discrimination is kept in place by the industry.

Some points to consider:

1. Most hair stylists receive inadequate training given that their meager 1500-2000 hours are split among several different foci. Cosmetologists (a.k.a. hair stylists) are trained in color, cut, perming, nails, etc. They don't receive a ton of training in any one thing (unlike barbers who focus all of their training on cutting).

2. Other so-called ethnic groups suffer from this same sort of discrimination cited above. "Asian hair" is deemed difficult to work with for the exact opposite reason that African American hair is -- apparently, it's considered to be too straight.

3. Dividing lines can also be drawn along gender identity. I'm a Caucasian female who chooses to wear her hair short (super short) in a style that most hetero women would consider to be masculine. When I go to a "salon" to get my hair cut, I can't find anyone who will actually cut it the way that I want; the insist on softening it, making it look more "feminine". (I've never been denied service at a salon, though -- just received shitty and reluctant service). When I go to a barber (since what I want is, basically, a flat top), one of two things happen: (1) they won't cut my hair because I'm female or (2) they cut my hair but charge me MORE than a man because they have different pricing systems (as do most salons) for men and women.

I'm not a stylist, so I have no idea if different hair really does require a different set of skills (to the degree claimed by the JC Penny person). Certainly something like braiding is a specialty skill that I wouldn't assume everyone could do. But it stands to reason that any human should be able to walk in off the street and get a basic hair cut/dye job. There's no excuse for any other treatment.

PhoenixRising said...

JC Penneys also cut 6 inches off my daughter's hair that she SHOWED and TOLD the stylist not to cut.

Then the manager came out to tell me that although her employee had first violated my child's personal integrity by ignoring her requested hair length and then quietly explained to me that 'she looked like a little Indian when she came in' (WTF??!?!?!) to justify this blatant assault on my kid--she expected me to pay for the haircut.

I told her that she could expect a nice envelope from the ACLU with 'SUMMONS' at the top of its contents as her reward. Didn't bother to do it because my 8 year old was traumatized enough by 1) having 3 years of hair growth cut into a Hannah-F'in-Montana Shag and 2) her mom using the very quiet voice in a way that had folks running out of Penneys clutching their purses in fear because I was clearly about to blow sky high.

I am SO glad to see that this woman was willing to push back. Hair is a political issue.

Robin said...

That is unexcusable. I'm white, but I come from a mixed European/Native/Semitic background, and I have very thick, coarse, wavy-curly hair. I've never been refused service outright, but I have had service dependent on subjecting myself to an industrial-strength shampoo (because the stylists don't think my hair "feels right") and a quart of grease to straighten and soften it out. The problem with that is that then they can't see where the curls are, and I can't convince them that if they cut it mid-curl, it *will* flip out - the curls are non-negotiable. And then trying to convince them that blow-drying my hair and fluffing it up will leave it frizzy and wider than it is long, more Bride of Frankenstein than Farah Fawcett.

Honestly, the hairstyling industry needs to step up here. I do not aspire to having stereotypical white person hair. I love that my hair is lively. If your job is how to cut, dye, and style hair, how hard is it to learn just a few extra lessons about the ways to handle all types of hair, whether it be fine or thick, long or short, straight or wavy or curly?

Nia said...

I can't feel the same way as you do but I think you are so right.

I'm white, from a racially homogeneous country, and when I lived in the States for a while I shaved my hair. I have "Mediterranean hair", thick and curly. So, when my hair started to grow, it was very tough and spiky and I wanted some sort of gel, that I found in the "ethnic hair" section of supermarket. I hated that label, not for me but because I knew that "ethnic" meant "African", so it was a stupid euphemism. All types of hair belong to an ethnic group or another!!

I think that corn rows or dreadlocks are kind of specialised, but I'm shocked to read that you need to go to a specialised place just to cut or dye your hair.

Anonymous said...

Another scenario: I recommended my hair person to my friend with gray roots. The stylist said she didn't feel comfortable that she wouldn't screw it up somehow. She (stylist) had her comfort zone but more importantly, she didn't want to mess up my friends hair and then lose me as a client. I don't know what the answer is frankly.

Stacey said...

I've had the flip side happen to me. I call a salon generally recommended by a friend, and try to make an appointment. They proceed to "quiz" me to make sure that I am calling the right place. When I show up for the appointment, they tell me they thought I was white which is why they asked so many questions because they don't do "white" hair and thought maybe I was confused.

AR said...

My reaction to this post once again fits the general pattern so well that I was inspired to render it in comic strip form, even though I'm not much of an artist.

Jim Crow laws were not merely segregation, they were legally mandated segregation. To propose the opposite, mandatory integration of private facilities, applies the exact same sort of reasoning, which is that the state can dictate who you must and must not associate with. Normally when I make such arguments, I have to frame the opposite application as something of a hypothetical, but here, you should already know full well what evils can be done with that sort of power: Jim Crow laws!

People opposed to this are free to use their economic power to convince JC Penny to reconsider its position, and I fully expect that they would succeed without bringing the court system into it. said...

Renee, I have thought about this all day. Thank-you for writing a post that makes me think and re-examine. Hair is a form of privilege I have never thought about before. I have hair that stylists seem to love to work. I have never had to think about that issue before. Thank-you. You work wonders in my world, do you know that?

thewhatifgirl said...

I have to second some of what Heather said. I'm not Asian but I have straight hair that will NOT hold a curl and has a serious cowlick in the front. Even my current hairstylist, who has been doing my hair for over four years, still tries to get it to do things that I know it won't do. And she always hesitates to cut it as short as I want it, nevermind that I LIKE looking somewhat androgynous. Hairstylists definitely need to learn how to deal with every kind of hair and every person's style better than they are now.

But it is a privilege for me that I've never been TURNED AWAY from a place, nor had to worry about being turned away. I'm glad she's suing and I hope she wins.

Anonymous said...

AR is at it again. Jim Crow laws = laws that mandate equal access for ALL our citizens, without which we would have not even have a semblence of democracy.

PS. Your cartoon sucks.

Having said that, GO PHILLIES!!!

Renee said...

@AR do you want to give an explanation of the last image in your comic?

AR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nia said...

I'm not the Nia who posted comment #15.
I feel the issue goes deeper as well, because as blacks we have to go to 'specialized'places to get our hair done; yet everywhere you turn - there are hair care products and hair styling aids marketed towards black people.
And the majority of these hair companies are run by white and Asian people.
So they have no problem finding us when they can get our money easily. Many of the hair products targetted towards us are of an inferior quality -even the ones targetted at 'natural hair' - just full of harmful chemicals.
Black people need to take control of the black hair care market that we are spending so much of our money on.

Glennisha Morgan said...

My take on this is maybe the way they said it was wrong but, come on I would never go to a JC Penny's to get anything done to my hair. You already know whose hair JC Penny's is use to working with. I think she was asking for it.

outcrazyophelia said...

But why shouldn't you have the right to go to a hair salon? She's got hair. If they don't want black business they're going to have to put it out there and face the consequences. I'm glad she's challenging them on their de facto segregation practices.

AR said...

Your cartoon sucks.

Yeah. I warned you I wasn't much of an artist. However, I must be even worse than I thought if the meaning isn't clear. The last panel is supposed to show anger. Here, as often happens, I read a fairly eloquent post about an ongoing social issue, which I am enthusiastically agreeing with, and then I come to the part where you say the state should force people to do business with each other contrary to the wishes of the seller. That's a sentiment worth getting upset about! As far as the state is concerned, people should be able to refuse business for any reason or no reason whatsoever. The fact that I would not perform the prohibited action anyway, and would neither want to invest in nor shop at a business that did, is entirely besides the point.

The rights that allow JC Penny to refuse hair service to blacks are exactly the same as those which allow people to boycott JC Penny for doing so.

On another note, I remember asserting before that capitalism naturally punishes discrimination, which you challenged. Well, here is an example. Salons have to hurt their own business in order live out their biases. The same principle applies generally.

restructure said...

@AR: Did you mean for the 'angry' face to have darker skin that the happy face?

Capitalism does not naturally punish discrimination. Businesses are not rational agents. Even if they were, if the majority wants something, and the minority wants something else, and the business knows about it, it will cater to the majority.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify - when I said AR's cartoon sucks, I meant "racist." I was too caught up in the Phillies clinching the World Series when I posted. Guess where I live?:)

Renee said...

@Anon yes I too saw the racism which why I asked for a clarification of intent.

AR said...

It was meant to be more detailed, and with shading instead of a line drawing. If I had drawn them in the same style they'd be the same shade.

Anonymous said...

I hope that this women gets every penny coming to her and the receptionist fired. As someone who has several white friends and colleagues I have had to correct and/or educate them on our hair usually after a dumbass statement was made, i.e-hair,clothing,stereotypes,music,etc. I am not negative or aggressive about it but they need to know and I would rather tell them before they say the wrong thing and meet the wrong brother or sister who will set them straight. I am someone who wears there hair natural and I get stares and glances from my own people so we got work to do their but.... Why this women chose a JCP Hair Salon I'll never know. That's not what immediately would come to mind as an organization that would cater to black hair or our needs. Yes a dye job is a dye job and that's an extra $50 that salon could have made that day.Oops on them! I'm skeptical as well of Gloria Allred not turning this into a three ring circus.

Anonymous said...

The fact of the matter is that it's very difficult to find stylists anywhere that are proficient in all hair textures. It all depends on experience and if you work in an all black neighborhood and just work on black hair all day long, the minute a blonde, tender headed woman with fine tangled hair sits in your chair, you're going to have the same level of difficulty as someone who's never worked with highly textured hair.

Same goes for going to JCPenney for hair services. When Cosmetologists get their license, there is no guarantee that the experience they get on the beauty school floor is going to be varied enough to cover all the bases. The clients they work on while on the beauty school floor are people who go to beauty schools for cheap haircuts. Depending on the local community, they may not get enough experience in all textures. Think about it...most communities in the United States are segregated.

misswadzi said...

Good post again. It amazes me the discrimination that happens in this world in such an open way and yet people take it. As black people we have to show the hair industry that we wont take this prejudice anymore.

However I believe before we can give the punch that would stop this injustice, black people have to start by stopping the self hate when it comes to our own hair. You all know what I mean.

I recently stopped living for society and their standards and went natural. I am not saying everyone should go natuaral but I am saying black people should love their hair as is. No one else will love it till we do. It all starts with us. Very proud of the lady and I hope she sends a message, this is a start.

Anonymous said...


UR a LIAR. That there cartoon is a mashup of various memes, and anon does not approve.

But in reaction to your comment about "forcing" people to interact, picture this: It is my grandparents fiftieth wedding anniversary. My grandmother, glowing with joy, is treated out by grandfather to the nicest restaurant in town. But when the arrive, the head waiter will not seat them. "I'm sorry, sir," he says, "but we don't serve old cunts here."

Please to take analogy and apply to your everyday life, and reflect.

Amy said...

This is horrible and I hope she wins the law suit.

My sister is very talented with hair. Her friend's daughter is mixed race [black & white] and my sister braids her hair beautifully. People will ask where she got her hair done. When my white sister is presented the black women do not want her to do their hair.

It is such a shame that people can't just be people.

Julia said...

I read this post the other day and I was amazed anyone was surprised by this. I've been denied service at many, many "regular" salons because of my hair. When I straightened it, my mom had to drive for 45 minutes to a place that would do it, and only one stylist in the whole salon did perms. ONE. I couldn't get my hair trimmed anywehre closer to home, because they refused. "We can't handle that kind of hair."

When I moved to some place with more black people, the black salons would bitch at me because my hair was "too african" (coiled and strong) and was "bad" (it won't stay straightened even with tons of chemicals). When I decided to go natural, I had to switch to black barber shops because they were the only place that would cut my hair without trying to convince me I needed to chemically process it.

I went to a Vidal Sassoon salon and had them freak out about my hair. Again, only one stylist in the shop agreed to cut it, only one would color it (two colorists refused to deal with me). I was dropping well over $100 and could barely get service.

Yesterday I spent 2 hrs and went to 5 different salons and they all refused to give me a blowout. I had made an appointment at a Dominican salon, and they refused to even touch my hair unless I agreed to a $90 chemical relaxer. I was then denied at a Brazilian salon, and three other salons (all of whom advertised hair straightening services and have black clients). I wasted 2 hrs and was left utterly humiliated.

I'm devoted to my current stylist, Wendy Rapoza in Boston, because she not only knows how to style natural african hair, she loves it. She goes to black beauty shows and has spent time in black salons. She always gives me amazing cuts.

Nina said...

This is a question of training I think, cutting and styling hair is a tough job, it takes a lot of technical precision (which explains why so many hairdressers aren't that great) so it doesn't surprise me that often people are only trained to cut one type of hair. I think the problem is that people who are trained are only getting employed at certain places and that is definitely segregation. You would think these businesses would have the sense to employ people who can cut all types of hair to bring in more customers with different types of hair so yeah there's racism here.

Lelah said...

Funny you think that only Black women/girls get their heads pet. I can assure you that isn't true.

Franki said...

This is horrible, but I think it's more a problem with this particular Penney's that JC Penney's as a corporation. I've never had any problems at the Penney's where I go.

There's also the fact that if the stylist wasn't trained on black hair - which tends to be coarse and much drier than white hair - she may have been afraid of messing up that woman's head. I'm not a stylist, but I know you have to condition hair types differently, especially if you're dying/processing hair and don't want it to come out dry and dull. Our hair *is* different. The solution isn't to cry racism, but to encourage training across racial lines.

Although why anyone would want a predominantly white, over-priced salon to overcharge them for a service they can get at the beauty shop on the corner for $20 is beyond me.

butterflywings said...

Er, but black people's and white people's hair are different.
It's fair enough that some hairdressers are only able to specialise in one type of hair. It depends, as others have said, on the area they trained in and the clients they practiced on. Yes ideally all hairdressers would have experience in all types of hair...and it's not like there is a black/white binary or like all black people, or all white people, have the same hair.
Maybe the way this receptionist said no was rude, but overall it's probably better to refuse than to try to do someone's hair when you have no idea what you are doing and will mess it up.
The reverse happens in many areas of London; where I live, the majority of salons are black and I'm sure they'd turn me away saying they don't do white hair.
In other, more mixed areas of London all types of hair can be catered for.
As someone said, people are people.

Franki said...

Ignore the last sentence of the second paragraph; that phrasing doesn't say remotely what I wanted it to.

The idea was more that it's not racist for a stylist to be afraid of fucking up, but the industry that doesn't train the stylist in such a way so that fear isn't needed is highly problematic.

Rachel said...

Perhaps, and maybe I'm going on on a limb here, but they should teach stylists how to style all hair ethnicities, and colorists how to color all ethnicities before these beauty school geniuses get licensed. I don't think that's too much to ask. Maybe then there wouldn't be so much pressure on those with non-white hair types to make themselves look white in order to be accepted.

Is that asking too much?

Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight. A hairdresser tells you that they're not able to do what you ask them to do and it's racism? To follow that logic would lead you to demand that a general surgeon perform a craniotomy. After all, he's a surgeon, that means that he's proficient at ALL surgeries, not just what he's trained for. I'm betting that you would want the Nurosurgeon, not the general surgeon. When you don't seek out the appropriate person for the job, that's not racism, it's just dumb.

Rebecca said...

A general surgeon does general surgery. A hairstylist styles hair. Non-white hair is still hair. And a neurosurgeon is a neurosurgeon, not a general surgeon. Great argument!
I as a white person never thought before about how the hair products designed for other races are displayed separately in drugstores. I guess I took it for granted. But now that it's pointed out to me, it doesn't make any sense.

judgesnineteen said...

Sounds like a good argument against "oh don't worry, the free market straightens any sort of discrimination right out". If people are crossing borders to get their hair done, some salons must stand to make more money by catering to both black and white people...but still aren't doing it.

jenna said...

hairstyling is an art, everybody cant do it

ramina said...

at the jcpenny in poughkeepsie, ny i had my main woman who did my hair (black. she made my hair look AMAZING!!!). but when she went on maternity leave, she set me up with her white coworker, who also made it look amazing and didn't have any problems with my hair. my white stepmother does my hair all the time when i visit. i call shenanigans on this salon.

Anonymous said...

The people who cannot see the discrimination may find it easier if they imagine the case of a salon (or library for that matter) that does not provide wheelchair access.

Maybe it was the case that the salon was unable to serve Brenda McElmore. But the discrimination started long before she turned up. When they decided to set up the salon the owners should have expected that people with the full range of hair types would walk through the door. Their decision to not employ staff capable of serving Ms McElmore was really a matter of choice. And it is that decision that was discriminatory.

Which is not to say it was a choice that they knew they were making. Racism is a kind of blindness.

People have raised a number of issues above that highlight the difficulties of working in an environment that is segregated: they way it limits a person's education and experience. This too is a result of racism.

“We don't do African-American hair.” Kind of speaks for itself.

Miranda said...

arrrgh! Didn't have the proficiency to mix up some hair dye and put it on there? I could do that in my kitchen with no special training. How did they get their licenses? I do hope this woman wins her suit; Penney's is clearly in the wrong.

I've had it with salons for a million reasons. Being white hasn't helped me much...they butcher my hair and ignore my requests (and my photographs of desired styles). I've learned to cut and dye my own hair at home. Granted, they don't refuse me service...I just refuse them my patronage because I'm tired of looking like someone ran over my head with a weed eater.

Anonymous said...

I came across this link while surfing Feministing, and I work for a newspaper. Coincidentally, our next issue is on race, and since my own column routinely focuses on Feminist angles to major social issues, this has really given me something to think about.

That being said, I've also had many jobs in the beauty industry (it's how I supported myself through college to earn my journalism degree) and my best friend happens to be a stylist. We worked at the same salon, she as a hairdresser and I as a sales associate. Anyway, out of the six regular hairstylists, my best friend was the only one who would do ethnic hair. Despite going to one of the best hair styling academies in the Midwest, she was not taught how to do any hair except white. None of the other girls were trained to do it either, but unlike them, my best friend was willing to try and learn. She eventually did, and most of her clients these days aren't white. That isn't to say she did it perfectly--she didn't. She got a number of complaints during her early days, many along the same line here of calling her incompetent and racist.

My point is, often the stylists themselves are not incompetent or racist, but just as victimized by the racist practices embedded in the institutions they attend to earn their license. I also spoke to an African-American friend who told me even when she attended a predominantly African-American styling academy, they did not learn about ethnic hair, and the assumption was that most of the women had practiced enough on their own family members.

In order to really start inciting change, we need to have more stylists who are willing to be like my best friend, willing to put up with the misunderstandings and the judgments and the dip in income in order to widen their experience beyond the limited, racist scope of the status quo. It's unfortunate none of the other women followed her example, both from their pocketbook perspective and more importantly from the social climate element.

Anonymous said...

Having worked at a salon:

1) Stylists have limited training and are not highly paid. The salons may be making $100 customer, but stylist are still earning $8 to $14 an hour. Training can run a couple weeks to a couple months. Cursing them for not knowing everything about all hair is unreasonable.

2) Different textures of hair are different. If a stylist doesn't know how to do a type of hair, it is better to let the customer know than to butcher their hair in an attempt to be equitable. Would you feel better if the stylist said, "I've never done it before, but lets give it a wack. How hard can it be..."

3) It's frustrating to have difficulties getting adequate or convenient service. Sorry to hear about your horrible experience.

Anonymous said...

See, this is why I just let my hair be - I'm Latina and my hair has a mind of it's own, and it's taken me 25 years to figure out that it looks best to just let it be as it is - so I let it grow long and stay curly. I used to be so self-conscious about it and as a kid I always braided it or hid it somehow, the other girls with the "friends" haircut made fun of me because my hair was... frizzy and curly and big and so on.

Now I'm realizing that I could probably do amazing beautiful things with my hair, if I knew how, or if someone who knew how did it, but I don't know anyone who does, and I hate how I look with straight hair. The other funny thing is that I've dated whites, Latinos, Europeans, middle easterners, and they all told me to cut and straighten my hair, girls with straight hair are prettier, and all that. But screw them all, I know when i look beautiful.

M. Harrell said...

I'm biracial (guessing from appearence, never met my biological parents), but my hair came out on the 'whiter' side of the spectrum, I guess. It's frizzy and curly but more like Irish hair than Black hair. My white adoptive mother never had problems with it, and I've never gotten turned away from a salon in my life (mostly using the 'white' salons).

So its weird for me to read this. I never really thought about the hairstylist thing as a serious problem, when I thought about it at all. I mean, I was aware it happened, but looking at it the way its stated here makes me feel more aware. It's unsettling, frankly. It does seem wrong. I don't think it's too much to ask to have access to the services people like me take for granted, but I wonder what it would take to get people to change. I hope she wins the lawsuit.

Maureen said...

As a hairstylist, this seems like sort of a catch-22 because so many of my white colleagues don't feel equipped to deal with african american hair, which is different from dealing with caucasian hair. HOWEVER, I am caucasian and have devoted time to getting good at african american hair but many african american women much prefer african american hairstylist, despite my proficiency.

Anonymous said...

As a long time hairstylist I can tell you that it is not a requirement of beauty schools to train people in all types of hair services. The beauty schools job is to train people in the skills required by the state in order to pass the state board exam for a cosmetology license. Once a person has a cosmetology license it is up to them to learn how to do different types of hair services.
Very few hairstylists are skilled in all types of hair. A hairstylist is going to learn to be skilled at the hair services of the people who patronize the salon he or she works in. It is unrealistic to think that any salon or all stylist can perform all hair services proficiantly. If the JC Penney receptionist actually said they don't do African-American hair it was a slip of the tongue. I know they meant they did not have any stylist on duty skilled enough to tint the womans hair. I think this woman is playing the race card for a settlement from JC Penney.

m Andrea said...

Absolutely fascinating post and comments, thank you all very much.

Really atrocious treatment black women are receiving, I hadn't ever thought about it quite like that before. But I can understand that training for hair stylists isn't very lengthy in most cases, and so of course they're not going to be very versatile. But still... doesn't make one feel very welcomed, now does it?

And you do realize that the very thing which makes black people's hair so freaking awesome is the very thing that patriarchy says is horrible about it? IT DEFIES GRAVITY!! How cool is that?! I'd put my hair in some rilly glamorous gravity defying shapes, if I could...

I love au natural, it is so beautiful. Sorry if I appear to have a fetish about black women's hair. :/ I consider it an atrocity to denigrate something so fabulous that not only do people overlook it's beauty, but then women themselves internalize racist beliefs about it.

Black women, you have gorgous hair. It is something to be proud of!

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