The Current Realities Of Hair-Based Discrimination / Shutterstock

For years, hair styling has served as a vehicle of financial mobility in the Black community, quickly blossoming into one of the most prominent entrepreneurial avenues amongst Black women. But as more and more stylists enter the fold with varying degrees of experience and licensing, new rules and regulations have been thrown into the mix, many of which alienate the core consumer group for these services. Namely, the ostracisation of thicker, coarser, or “4C” hair textures which has caused quite the coiffure kerfuffle online. From outlandish extra charges to downright refusals of service, Black women with tightly coiled hair are feeling the brunt of discriminatory hair care practices, which some say is only getting worse in the current era of digital hairstylists and lengthy booking policies.

The birth of the Instagram hairstylist has lit the path for a new generation of Black female entrepreneurship, revolutionizing a time-honored ritual into a booming business practice. For decades, Black women have turned their coiffure talents into high-yielding revenue streams, proliferating this art form into a favored source of economic independence within the Black community.

Take, for instance, the Jim Crow era, when hair styling established itself as a formidable economic tool, enabling Black women to contribute to socio political initiatives.

Years later, enter the digital revolution, which saw the birth of apps like Facebook and Instagram and service sites such as StyleSeat and Vagaro, all of which worked towards the marriage of access and audience– two of the most valuable pillars of modern entrepreneurship. And with Black women spending approximately $2.29B in annual sales on hair care, the sky has become the limit for the dexterously blessed among us.

But when you are able to operate as an essentially ungoverned entity, as many digitally empowered stylists act as their own boss– making them judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to rules regarding who they service and how much they charge– many rules are enforced without bounds. One regulation that has been making waves for all the wrong reasons on social media? Stylists who are charging extra for or downright refusing to do 4C or “thicker” and “coarser” hair textures. 

In September, a screenshot from a lengthy list of rules from a hairstylist went viral on Twitter after someone pointed out the stylist was “not accepting 4C at this time.” Unsurprisingly, this set the website ablaze, with many wondering how we reached this point. 

The topic has been a point of contention on TikTok and Twitter for a while, with many claiming that if you cannot do 4C hair, then you should not call yourself a hairstylist. The illegitimacy of stylists who can’t do coily hair textures has been further called into question by a new law in New York that will require all cosmetology students in New York to learn how to do textured hairstyles. 

From viral tweets to inspired legislation, this outrage is understandable, especially in the case of braid styles, considering they originated in and for the Black community in which coarser and thicker hair grades are quite common.

The Current Realities Of Hair-Based Discrimination
Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Gonzales.

“In reality, the girls with tighter textured hair, that’s who braids were really for. It’s a little bit more difficult to braid silky hair because it has that slip,” says Taylour Gonzales, a licensed cosmetologist based out of San Diego. She has been working in the hair industry for just under ten years.

While her specialties lie in non-extension-based styles, she is all too familiar with the divisiveness and outright exclusion catalyzed by the hair typing system. This long-standing practice of compartmentalizing various hair textures into neat little boxes was initially presented as a tool to educate Black people on the unique needs of our hair depending on texture and porosity but has quickly shifted into something a bit more sinister, namely at the hands of choosey stylists.

“It’s discriminatory,” says Gonzales, who adds that while she does charge extra for length, thickness and texture have never factored into her pricing– something she thinks should be an industry standard. “That’s just what comes out of your scalp. [Clients] can’t change that,” says Gonzales. Additionally, the term “thick” has adopted hushed undertones of anti-Blackness as some clients have noticed the term being used as a derogatory code for “kinkier,” “nappier,” and “coarser” textures.

“There’s a cultural association with “thickness,” where it acts as this passive-aggressive term,” says Dara Freemon, a Houston resident who recalls two separate occasions where she was charged extra for having thick hair, both of which left her feeling uncomfortable as both a Black woman and client.

The Current Realities Of Hair-Based Discrimination
Photo: Courtesy of Dara Freemon.

In one instance, the stylist remarked that Freemon “didn’t tell her she had all that hair” in the beginning, which made her feel put on the spot and unsure of how to respond.

Further, she did not know she was going to be charged extra until after the style was complete, and it was too late to decline or negotiate the fee. “There was a list of rules on her site, but an extra charge for thick hair wasn’t on the list,” says Freemon, adding that she was also required to come washed and blowdried for the service. 

The second instance was even more jarring as the stylist posed the density of Freemon’s hair as an inconvenience, something that made her feel hesitant about the way her hair would be treated during the service. “I’m very particular about my hair. So having someone make those comments, it’s like, are they not going to take care of my hair because they’re already not feeling my hair texture?’” says Freemon. 

These nerves are part of the reason it can be difficult for clients to speak up when presented with last-minute charges, a common rebuttal when people vent their frustrations regarding the current state of the beauty service economy. And since many of these services take place in the personal suites, homes or, in Freemon’s case, garages of these stylists, confrontation is the last thing many clients want. 

“I was still getting used to Houston and I was going on a trip in a few days. So I was in survival mode. Like, let me not speak up when I don’t know her,” says Freemon. But beyond fostering an unfortunately tense environment and turning clients off from the entire experience, it also illustrates a clear bias towards looser hair textures– in other words, discrimination. And this feeling of exclusion is not lost on the most important party in these scenarios— the clients. “It’s upsetting because you’re being judged on something that naturally is coming out of my head,” says Freemon.

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