A Painful ParadoxThe Case for Reclaiming the Black Beauty Supply

A bicyclist pedals past a beauty supplies shop.

A bicyclist pedals past a beauty supplies shop along Crenshaw Boulevard in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles on April 21, 2015. (Photo credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Black beauty-supply stores have long been the first stop in a multi-step haircare ritual for Black women, from wash day to crochet braids to box braids and back again. It’s here that we find aisles of products that cater to our curls and kinks; some of them are things we’ve read online rave reviews about, some we grew up with, and some we’ve never seen before. We may walk in certain about the tools we need for our next look and end up leaving with even bigger, bolder ideas often rooted in newfound appreciation for the freedom of expression our hair allows us. But while beauty-supply stores may sound like Black-girl sanctuaries, many of these shops also greet us with built-in microaggressions. For Black women, navigating beauty spaces where we are the target customer but rarely the owner is often a balancing act—a paradox of convenient, low-cost options for our specific beauty needs that exist in a physical space where we nevertheless find ourselves feeling excluded.

Depending on the city you live in, it’s common to see beauty-supply stores that are tailored to the needs of Black hair owned by non-Black people, namely Korean Americans. With a stronghold on the wig market dating back to the 1950s, Korean immigrants recognized the gold mine of Black buying power early on. Simply put, selling Black beauty supplies is good business: a market full of specialized products that are, for the most part, not widely available at more generalized health and beauty retailers. According to a report from 2017, Black shoppers spend a whopping $473 million on hair care every year—nine times more than their white counterparts. Yet they own less than 1 percent of the market share. Despite their inherent reliance on Black consumers as a means of profit, the dynamics of the beauty-supply retailer are skewed on either side of the cash-out counter. Black customers have reported being followed, profiled, and even attacked by store employees; it’s not uncommon to see signage limiting how many members of a group can come into a store at a time.

Black employees at non-Black–owned beauty-supply stores report being restricted in everything from hours to advancement opportunities to not being permitted to cash customers out. Despite being the demographic for these stores and knowledgeable about the products they sell, there are limits to what Black employees are able to do in these spaces, and some find themselves walking on eggshells. “You can help [shoppers] out as far as making suggestions for products or directing them around the store, but that is as far that went. If you helped a customer, you had to walk and hand their items over to the cashier,” reports Elysha, a former employee of a popular Toronto-based beauty-supply store. And though she’s seen a slight shift, the lack of trust still looms large: “I am noticing more Black girls behind the cash [register], but they still have a non-Black staff member hovering around them.”

This implicit bias is a common thread in the treatment of Black customers and employees alike. Earlier this month, a controversial TikTok went viral: In the video, a woman of color holds up false lashes and points out that the additional tape on its packaging is due to the likelihood of them being stolen; in the next clip, she specifies that this is to prevent them from being stolen by “Black girls who work at McDonalds.” She was later fired for her comments, but such “preventative measures” seem to track even outside of beauty-supply stores, suggesting they’re a part of a larger trend. A Walmart location in California faced accusations of discrimination last summer after beauty products marketed toward Black people were placed in locked cases despite the fact that a different shopper sued Walmart.

Though the impact is hardly different, it hurts differently to see such racist and classist overtones in beauty supply stores given that they’re meant to be for Black people. “I’ve been followed, I’ve been accused of stealing, my son has been yelled at by a non-Black staff in one location. I try to limit my time there now,” says Elysha. “If you looked a certain way, they would follow you around the store or watch from the cameras.” One solution is for Black people to take ownership of these beauty supply stores, but, as important as it may be to reclaim these spaces, ownership can prove taxing. Opening any type of establishment requires capital and a solid supply chain—which is where Black owners often run into problems. “There are certain industries, like the hair industry, that you just cannot break into. Black people cannot sell hair to other Black people,” said financial advisor Tiffany Aliche in the 2019 BET documentary The Glam Gap. “Vendors won’t work with them. Distributors won’t work with them … There’s wealth being made that’s being spent by Black women, but not being spent with Black women.”

To Monica*, who worked at another Toronto-based beauty-supply chain for three years, this was a prevailing issue. “Black owners have to search for reasonable distributors, and even then, they may be overcharged because of their race, [which means] they have to sell to the consumer for a higher price,” she explained. “A non-Black store owner and non-Black vendor or distributor are more likely to negotiate lower costs if they’re from the same background.” Terrence*, who with his wife co-owns two beauty-supply stores in Toronto’s suburbs, says their personal experience of stocking their stores have been “more insidious” than consumers really know. He points to a deep fear of competition and a power dynamic that quells Black ownership: “There was a certain hair type that our customers were asking for, so we reached out to the manufacturers. They kept disappearing and asked for our business details, multiple times,” he explained. This went on for months, he says, until he followed up immediately after providing the same business information a fourth time. “The representative eventually said, ‘Let me just own up to you. Another beauty-supply store in the city you’re in said if we sell to you, they will no longer buy from us.’” Both the owner of the other beauty-supply store and the manufacturer were non-Black.

It hurts differently to see such racist and classist overtones in beauty supply stores given that they’re meant to be for Black people.

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Terrence explains that experiences like this are among a combination of factors that results in Black-owned stores offering less stock and variety than their Asian-owned counterparts. “There are a few brands that flatly do not sell to any Black-owned stores, but [other] vendors ask for very high minimum orders and are unwilling to make deals,” he says, citing one vendor’s request that he purchase $60,000 worth of “one style and one color” of a particular brand of hair. “Black-owned stores aren’t lacking in certain products because they don’t want to carry them, it’s because we’ve not been allowed to.”

Despite obstacles like these, the last few years have seen the number of Black-owned beauty shops continuing to grow, with organizations like the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA) assisting in the opening of 450 across America since 2003. Along with the supply, the need and demand is growing along with it: The first Black-owned beauty supply in Nashville, for example, opened in 2019 and brought in $50,000 within its first three hours of business. Energy has also shifted toward ownership in digital spaces, with independent brands and online stores popping up in their place. Online beauty-supply stores like Curl Bible—led by Dana Chanel, founder of the spiritual affirmation app Sprinkle of Jesus—are stocked with products from well-known brands like Shea Moisture, Carol’s Daughter, and Mixed Chicks as well as smaller independent brands like JELN and Glowry.

The future of Black-owned shops lies partially in the hands of Black consumers, whose patronage will ultimately decide the kinds of business that are able to flourish. “After I quit [working at the store] I stopped shopping there for awhile,” Elysha says. “I make maybe two to three trips a year when needed, but I try to purchase the majority of my needs online.” With convenience, access and systemic barriers in mind, Terrence says the issue plaguing the industry won’t change overnight, but emphasizes the importance of working toward solutions in even the smallest ways. “The longest journey starts with the first step. We have to be the business to give Black people options, so we fight to stay open.”

*Names have been changed.


by Sajae Elder
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