That'll Be Extra For Your "Afro Hair": The Segregated Hair Salon Market and Me

In theory there’s nothing wrong with a “voluntarily” segregated hair salon market. In practice it’s different.

Dec 3, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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While walking the streets of London, I encountered a sign advertising a blow dry service. £25 for a blow dry? A reasonable price. A recessionista can handle that. But if you have "Afro hair," it would be an additional £5.

The blatant price discrimination irked me. So naturally I did what all radical social media savvy activists do when something bothers them. I Tweeted about it and put a picture on Instagram

If you didn’t already know, what a black woman chooses to do with her hair has become unnecessarily entangled in a convoluted political discourse. A discourse so complex it’s difficult to prise the actual problem apart from its offspring, or have a conversation about black hair without offending someone. For reasons out of her control, a black hair woman’s hair choice is loaded. 

And the bizarre fascination with black women’s hair doesn’t seem to be dwindling. Whether it’s natural, relaxed, shaved, braided or dreaded, you’ll be questioned.

“How does your hair get like that?” “Magic?” "Why do you wear it like that?”

If you encounter someone curious and courageous, they may ask to touch “it.” The type of people audacious enough to make such a request tend to ask while their hand is already on your head. Hair fiddlers are annoying, but compared to the intellectually bankrupt souls who judge a black woman’s character based solely on her choice of hairstyle, they’re bearable.

I wish it were “just hair,” but unfortunately it’s not. So when I saw the sign, it pricked a nerve. 

When I was a little girl, my mum used to do my hair. She’s a skilled hairstylist. However my hair (like my personality) was rebellious and reluctant to be tamed. During our hairdressing sessions, my mother and I became temporary adversaries. She’d hit my scalp with the comb every time I’d scream in pain (she denies this). I'd pray for magic powers to make her disappear. 

Suffice to say this did little for the health of our relationship. When given the choice between enduring torture at the hands of my mother (and ending up with an equally torturous hairstyle) or going to the hairdressers, it wasn’t a difficult decision. 

The steady influx of immigrants from the Caribbean and West Africa to England from the Post-War period to the early 80s meant that come the early 2000s, when I first started going to the salon, there wasn't a shortage of places for me to go to get my hair done. In pockets of London like Brixton, Peckham, Homerton and Finsbury Park, black women have a plethora of hair salon options. However these salons are generally frequented exclusively by black women. 

Why? It’s pretty simple. Despite a study conducted by L’Oreal showing that black women in the UK spend six times more on hair care than white women, they’re still considered a niche market. A niche your average European salon doesn’t require their staff to be familiar with or deem profitable enough to invest in attracting. Therefore black people have maintained their own network of salons to cater to their hair. 

In theory there’s nothing wrong with a “voluntarily” segregated hair salon market. In practice it’s different. I know of women in England and other European countries who live in small towns with low/non-existent minority populations. This means they tend to have no options when it comes to doing their hair professionally. They have to travel to a big city.

Some of my friends who ventured out of London for university would do insane coach journeys back to London just to get their hair done. They’d get on a coach at midnight in northwest England and travel for five hours in order to make a 9 am hair appointment. Once their hair was done, they’d dash to the coach station in order to get back to university just in time to make the final lecture of the day. I even heard of someone who travels from France to London every six weeks! Scenarios like this demonstrate the additional financial and time burden that can be placed on what is already a costly experience. 

It’s a divide that doesn’t make practical sense, especially in a social climate that’s deemed by some as being “post racial” (sidebar: I roll my eyes whenever I meet anyone who takes post-racialism theory seriously). We’d recoil at the thought of spas or wax bars that stratified themselves according to race. But the fact that our hair salons are far from integrated has become so normalized we rarely question it. 

Emma Rees, owner of Blow Bar in Islington, the salon that inspired this piece, later reassured me that all “thick curly hair” types were charged additionally.

“We specialize in all types of hair. All our stylists undergo an intensive blow dry training course to cover all hair types. Like all other salons we charge by time slots so this is why we charge more for services that take longer,” said Rees. By highlighting Afro hair in their price list Blow Bar is showing that they’re one of the few inclusive European salons. 

So I won’t diminish the spirit of the gesture. But its execution was horrendous. In many ways, it’s a direction we should be moving toward. Different hair types cared for in the same environment.

Hopefully we’ll get to a point when "Afro hair" is simply considered hair. Hair that might require a different technique, but hair just the same. Hair that doesn’t mean an additional cost. Hair that isn't treated as an "other."

In the meantime I’ll endeavor to be less sensitive about this hair thing. Unless of course you try and touch my hair, then we may have an issue.