When I was 15, one of my white friends in Edinburgh, where I grew up, convinced me to go to her regular hairdressers, as there were only three black hairdressers in the whole of the city and they were all over an hour’s walk away. “It’ll be fine,” she assured me. “I bet they’ll do a great job.” We started getting odd looks as soon as I walked in the door. There was a furtive exchange between the hairdressers, and then a definitive answer: “We don’t do your hair type.”
More recently in the UK there has been a drive to encourage all hairdressers to learn how to do afro hair, and a lot of black people, fed up of not being able to go to high street salons to get their hair washed and cut, have spoken up about it. Chloe Sharp, investigating for Stylist magazine, was told by one “trendy east London salon” that she would have to pay a deposit for her appointment – something that wasn’t required of white customers.
Speaking with a friend who is currently on a well-respected hairdressing course, she says that she hasn’t been required to learn how to manage black hair types and that to do so costs extra. Another woman, who works in the head office of a chain of London salons, tells me that “generally speaking, stylists don't know how to deal with black hair types unless they did their NVQ in a place that offers black hair training, or have been lucky enough to work for a company who will train them. I've heard of many places refusing customers with black hair types as they aren't experienced in ever dealing with it and aren't open to it.”
This is disappointing, considering that a study by Habia revealed that there are 35,704 beauty salons in the UK, but only 302 Afro-Caribbean salons. While that number seems a little low to me – and doesn’t include personal hairdressing services, which many black women rely on – there’s no denying that outside of urban centres it can be really hard to find a reliable black hairdresser who isn’t intent on burning your head off with chemical straightener or stitching your weave on wonky.
Surely, then, this initiative to try and get more “white” hair salons to start catering to black customers is a good thing? It would give us more options, and would be inherently fairer. My teenage self wouldn’t have been reduced to a stuttering mess of kinky-haired shame and everyone would make more money: black women in the US pay out about $7.5 billion annually on beauty products, spending 80% more on cosmetics than their non-black counterparts. The UK is reportedly the third biggest importer of human hair in the world, with spendings of £38 million – human hair being a black woman’s staple for weaves and wigs.
Plus, there is arguably a professionalism in the wider hairdressing industry that is sometimes lacking at your everyday black hair salon – unless you want to pay for a luxury service like Errol Douglas, whose prices start from £300 for a cut and blow dry. Alongside my own experiences, I have heard too many stories of rude and incompetent Afro-Caribbean hairdressers to believe this isn’t a genuine issue in certain areas of the black haircare industry.
However, the potential downside to encouraging white hairdressers to enter into black hairdressing is that it is one of the few industries where black women are able to easily gain economic independence, in a climate where we are still the most likely to be unemployed compared to other ethnicities. Living in Peckham, southeast London, where a collection of well-known high street black hairdressers are being relegated to a back street thanks to gentrification – sorry, “regeneration” – I know how little respect white institutions can have for black women hairdressers (and our hair).
Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo brought wider attention to this reality when she slammed Selfridges' Braid Bar earlier this year for cultural appropriation, after they invited her in for a free hairstyling session despite having very little representation of black women with kinkier afro hair textures on their social media platforms.
She wrote in a lengthy Instagram post: “Businesses such as The Braid Bar and public figures like Kylie Jenner can make a legit earning showcasing of all the styles mentioned above, without the perceived burden of whooole lot of melanin… So I say this, to girls and guys of ALL races who want to try these looks, by all means go ahead… I would just consider directing your coins to spaces more openly appreciative and reflective of the women and cultures who provide their inspiration.”
Even though The Braid Bar employs black hairstylists, it is white-owned and – as Amfo pointed out – was profiting from the use of their skills without being respectful of the communities they came from or, at the very least, diversifying their social media presence. This is something they have now improved after issuing an apology to Amfo, but surely this sort of thing could happen more and more often if white hairdressers start taking up the mantle?
However, Amfo, whom I reached out to for this article (she said she was too “hair-ed out” to discuss The Braid Bar any further, which is fair), did point me in the direction of black celebrity hairstylist Kevin Fortune, who runs hairdressing courses which teach people of all races about afro hair. “The aim of this course is for you to appreciate the unique styling needs and wonderful creative possibilities of Afro hair,” reads the description. “Having versatile knowledge in this field will add an essential and extremely marketable string to your set of styling skills.”
Speaking on the phone shortly before he jetted off to do Pixie Geldof’s wedding in Magaluf, he tells me that the majority of the people he teaches are white. “Maybe five black women out of possibly 100 people have done our course… Some people come on and they’ve never ever touched afro-textured hair before and although we have a wide variety of different models who come in on the day, sometimes if you spray water on the girl's hair and it starts shrinking they go, ‘Ooh, aah’. It’s like 1885 in a circus tent. Everyone’s going ‘Oh my god, it’s moving’. It’s so new to them, so unique, they’ve never seen it before.”
When I challenge him on the idea that more white people learning to do afro-textured hair could take away business from the everyday black salon, he says that black hairdressers need to up their game. “It may be quite controversial but they need to provide a service that stands out and that everyone is vying for. It’s still very much like you walk into a black hair salon and the service isn’t there, it’s inadequate. Of course, you’re paying prices that are a lot cheaper – you can’t expect a red carpet or someone to wipe your shoes – but there’s a basic common service that every establishment should provide and if you speak to the vast majority of black women they don’t get that all the time. It would be a real positive if all salons could be able to do black hair.”
Jamelia, popstar turned cultural commentator, agrees. “White hairdressers, nine times out of 10, don’t know how to deal with afro hair,” she says. “What I would like to see is black hairdressers who are skilled with every type of hair allowed to get more opportunities, but I do think everyone should be trained in how to do black hair.” She also makes the point that the higher echelons of the hairdressing industry are already whitewashed. “When you said, do I think that if white hairdressers were to get the training to do black hair, would they be taking over black business – the reality is that they’re doing that anyway, without having the expertise.”
Speaking about her time on TV shows Loose Women and Strictly Come Dancing, she reveals that she often had to do her own hair and makeup. “I was having to come up with Strictly-worthy styles, and I’d only just gone natural a few months before,” she says. “I’d be in my dressing room doing my own hair and makeup, and then they’d invite me down into the room where everyone’s getting their hair done for a photo opportunity to make it look like I was getting my hair done, too.
“I’d be in tears, and they’d be saying to me, ‘Well, if you want your hair done, you’ll have to relax it.’ And I’d be like, ‘What you’re asking me to do is a permanent chemical process to my hair.’ I felt like Martin Luther King,” she laughs. “My daughters were there some of the time and I tried to explain to them that what they were saying was that my daughter’s hair isn’t beautiful and anyone who has our hair type can’t be seen as beautiful and elegant. These shows make millions and they didn’t bring in someone for me.”
Another perspective comes from Virginia P Moreira, who is a hairstylist to the stars, having worked with Björk, Lary B, VV Brown, Kylie Minogue and, most recently, singer Kelela. At The Braid Bar, where she worked for a time, she was asked to teach non-black girls to braid hair, which threw her off. On the other side of the coin, she says, “People do complain about going to white salons and it just not working. When I studied my course was combined hair types and that included cutting, relaxing, perming. It’s different techniques but it’s the same procedure”.
“Maybe if all salons are encouraged to do all hair types, the black woman in Hampstead will feel more like she can step into the local Caucasian business because she probably feels detached from going to Peckham or wherever, but I don’t feel it will affect the business too much. Real girls recognise and wouldn’t trust most white hairdressers anyway. I don’t think we should worry. Definitely support your aunty, definitely support your sister. Right now they’re just pushing for this superficial utopian idea of everyone being able to do it.”