African-American hair stylists are using dangerous chemicals and hair from Indian women to make blacks in America look like their white sisters. This market is controlled by a network of Koreans.
“100 percent Indian hair coming soon,” a handwritten note says in the hair salon Glam-R-Us on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn.
Indian hair is the best and most expensive there is, stylist Antoinette Hill says. Lorina Powell is in the chair. Armed with a razor, the stylist cuts away hair that has been welded onto Lorina’s own braided hair.
This is Indian-quality hair that can be reused. You can color it too, the stylist says as she places big balls of hair on the next chair.
The relationship between African-American women and their own hair is – to put it mildly – complex. The reason is simple: If they let it grow, they will end up with an afro. And that is not socially acceptable.
Have you ever seen anyone with an afro make a career at Wall Street, for example, asks the stylist and shakes her own hair. It is Indian-quality hair hanging down over her shoulders. Her own hair is hidden.
The stylist could just as well be referring to the media. Hardly any of the high-profile African-American women on American TV have their natural hairstyle. They smooth it out or use extensions.
This is what's called a “professional look” in America. Women who have tried to let their hair grow naturally have been asked by their employers to smooth it out.
Comedian Chris Rock got the idea for his film “Good Hair” when his little daughter asked, “Daddy, why don’t I have pretty hair?”
After that, Rock started digging into the hair habits of black women. It became a very funny film that won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The film created an enormous response, not in the least because it illuminates an area hidden by taboos.
First Lady Michelle Obama and her mother smooth their hair out — something that has led to debate among political activists. They wish to see an afro in the White House and think Michelle is living up to the white ideal with her hair.
Black hair still has political power, something that became evident when the Obama family was in Rome last year. Normally, the Obama daughters wear braids, but on the trip, Malia's hair was free. This led to hot debates on conservative websites about whether she was “fit” to represent the U.S.
“For black women, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don't,” Ingrid Banks, a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, said to The New York Times.
According to her, an African-American woman who smoothes her hair out will be accused of being ashamed of her ethnic heritage, while women who let their hair grow naturally might be told it looks unkempt. For most people though, hair has nothing to do with politics. It is about fashion and well-being.
No one in America spends more money on their hair and goes to stylists more often than African-American women. Surveys show they surpass their fellow sisters from other ethnic groups tenfold. Hill immediately admits that it is white beauty ideals that are making these women change their hair. In addition, an afro is difficult to maintain.
There are three ways African-American women can follow the white beauty ideal: they can straighten the hair by using chemicals; they can extend other hair; or they can buy a wig. More and more are choosing the hair extension.
To make the hair smooth, strong chemicals called “creamy crack” are applied. Many think this is dangerous. The treatment must be done often — every six to eight weeks — to make it hold. Combined with coloring, it can damage the hair, the stylist admits. That is why it is more and more common to use extensions.
The customers come in all ages. The youngest customer I've had was five, the oldest was over 80, Hill says.
In the chair, Powell sits and watches her purchased hair be cut away. Underneath the purchased hair, her own hair becomes visible. It is braided in small, tight braids to which the Indian hair is fused. To braid and attach the hair takes hours. To take it off takes about one hour.
What do you talk about during all these hours?
It becomes therapy. I think I know almost everything about my customers’ private lives, Hill smiles.
Now she straightens the many small braids. Extended hair cannot be attached for more than three months, because one's own hair grows.
The advantage to using extensions like this is that it feels like your own. I'd recommend it instead of a wig, Hill says.
You can have hair in any price range, from cheap synthetic hair that you cannot change in any way — and that melts if you go near a curler — to the most expensive Indian hair, which can cost several hundred dollars, depending on the length. Often the customers will buy the hair themselves and bring it to the salon. To have it fitted can cost a couple of hundred dollars.
Why is the Indian hair so expensive?
Indian women don't use chemicals in their hair; they do not color it. They just wash it. The hair is cut off and given as a sacrifice in the temples. The women get nothing, and it is sold to us at high cost, Hill explains, and says that there is also Chinese and European hair on the market.
With the fixation your fellow sisters have on hair, a beauty salon must be a good business?
Yes, it's a good business, but the hours are long. From eight to 10 hours, but the ones who make the most money out of this are the ones who sell hair products and hair, Hill states.
And the market is dominated by what many stylists think is a kind of Korean mafia. The documentary filmmaker Aaron Ranen's film “Black Hair” documents how Koreans more or less have a monopoly on selling hair and hair products to the African-American market — a multibillion-dollar market that just keeps on growing. Young women would rather spend money on hair than on anything else, a woman in the film says.
I don't know why it's like that, but I don't know about anyone but Koreans who are selling this, the stylist says.
Their monopoly in the market has made the prices soar. In towns dominated by blacks, this has become a hot topic. There are tensions between Koreans, who sell hair and hair products, and African-Americans. They have formed organizations in an attempt to create distribution channels and get their own products to market, but so far they have not succeeded. It is a blisteringly hot afternoon, and we are squeezed into the visitors’ chairs in the salon. Hill, as usual, has had a fruit salad for lunch. She has a couple of minutes off because she has had two cancellations.
What about men? Do they care about hair?
African-American men are like other men, not very preoccupied with it, she says while looking at my hair.
By the way, I've had some male customers who are looking to get hair extensions ... that's a new thing, she says.