This story is a part of The Melanin Edit, a platform in which Allure will explore every facet of a melanin-rich life — from the most innovative treatments for hyperpigmentation to the social and emotional realities — all while spreading Black pride.
How far would you travel to get your hair done? For most, it would depend on the stylist or the service. For others, any sort of extended trek would have to be for a special occasion. For many Black women across America, however, making a lengthy trip to the salon is a typical practice — and not by choice.
In early March, TikToker Mimi Taylor went viral after posting a video in which she documented the process of trying to book a hair appointment. Taylor, who resides in Olympia, Washington, was looking for a simple service: straight back cornrows that would allow her to wear a new wig. She proceeded to call the hair salons in her area to inquire whether the stylists working had experience with textured hair, generic antabuse nz no prescription more specifically Taylor's 4C texture. BuzzFeed News reported that she called 26 salons in her area, to no avail. Eventually, Taylor did find someone to cornrow her hair: her grandmother, who lives two hours away.
A few days after Taylor’s video went viral, she posted another video addressing hateful comments that accused her of bashing the salons she contacted, and wasting the stylists' time by not initially calling a Black salon. "If I lived near a Black salon, don't you think I would have went to one??" writes Taylor in the next slide. America is rife with the existence of Black hair deserts: entire regions of the nation where people with Afro-textured hair must travel miles to find a trusted hairstylist.
An early mention of the term "Black salon desert" comes from a 2018 New Hampshire Public Radio story. These deserts are places — most often but not exclusively rural areas — where very few or zero salons with stylists who are proficient in working with any textures other than straight or smooth exist for miles. As a result, Black folks with kinky or curly hair living in these areas may need to travel for hours or take matters literally into their (or their grandmothers') own hands. Even more, hair desert residents who are able to find a salon that will take them on as a client often face texturist practices such as upcharging styles for type 4 hair or requiring clients with tighter curls to do a large part of the labor that is normally included in a service for looser-textured clients. Frankly, who has the time or the energy to deal with this type of discrimination when you may have to travel 30+ miles to even sit in a salon chair?
Hair deserts are not a new phenomenon, and do not only occur in the United States, but are intrinsically linked to racial segregation and systemic racism — two methods of a white power structure that America has a long history of applying.
The Makings of a Hair Desert
Sociologist Shatima Jones — a visiting associate professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University, whose academic focus is on Blackness and Black identities — believes that factors like demographics, class, property costs, and gentrification all contribute to the creation of Black hair deserts. A large part of Jones’s research is on the institutions of the Black barbershop and beauty salon.
When tapped for her expertise, Jones admitted that the concept of Black hair deserts was fairly new to her, but was able to quickly speculate reasons Black hair deserts exist. Calling from her home in upstate New York, Jones uses her own surroundings as a mini case study. Jones tells Allure, "[Black hair deserts are] a function of suburbs, it’s a function of who lives here by race." On paper, Jones says her town is fairly diverse, but, "we don't really see [the people of color] because we're all spread out in our homes and our houses. So there's a geographic part, there's a suburb, there's a spatial dimension to it as well. Who gets to live in the suburbs? Who gets to own a home? That's definitely a class dynamic, which [in] the United States, is closely tied to race. When I moved here, I wasn't expecting to find Black hair salons."
Redlining contributed to nearly all-white suburbs that were rich in resources but limited in Black-owned businesses.
Alternatively, Jones grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which would have been considered a Black hair oasis. During her youth, Crown Heights was a predominantly Black neighborhood with the retail mecca of Fulton Street winding through it, replete with hair salons of all kinds: traditional African braiding salons, Dominican hair salons, specialized salons for perms and weaves. Today, gentrification is steadily increasing. While these neighborhoods have managed to maintain their oasis status, gentrification is persistent. The barbershop where Jones conducted a majority of her research for the book she’s writing has since closed. "If Black people and people of the lower working class are being pushed out [by rising rent prices], then the demand for these spaces, arguably, is also affected," Jones says. "If the rent is going up, on the ownership side it's harder, too. That's pushing these businesses out of the neighborhood despite the demand."
Being a salon stylist can be a very lucrative profession, but it's also one with high overhead. There's the cosmetology license, the rent (either for the location or for your chair within a salon), and the supplies. But for Black practitioners who specialize in natural hair, the barriers to entry are even more nuanced.
Many cosmetology programs in the United States do not include natural hairstyling in their curriculums. The natural hair programs that are available are often offered separately from the core cosmetology programs as additional training or specialty courses. And there are multiple state legislations with extensive licensing requirements and regulations in place on natural hair braiding, most notably Louisiana and at one point, Oklahoma.
Once you do have the proper training, getting funding to open a salon is another matter. Historical practices like redlining have created lasting geographical segregation that has negatively impacted Black business prospects. Redlining began in the 1930s after the creation of the Federal Housing Administration to provide insurance on mortgages, but only those that fit certain requirements. Areas outlined on maps in red ink marked off entire neighborhoods — predominantly where people of color and other minorities lived — that were deemed too high a financial risk.
Home ownership, services, and resources ended up restricted to certain communities and areas based solely on race. In addition, this made it near impossible for upper and middle-class Black families to buy property in predominantly white neighborhoods, with the Federal Housing Administration stating that "incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities," as explained in a 2017 NPR report. This contributed to nearly all-white suburbs that were rich in resources but limited in Black-owned businesses.
Although explicit redlining was technically made illegal when the Fair Housing Act passed in 1968, the lingering effects of the practice is one of the reasons you still don’t often see “fancy” supermarkets or gyms in low-income, Black neighborhoods. It’s still harder to get a loan to start a business in those areas, and it’s hardest for people of color to get loans anywhere. According to 2017 data from the Federal Reserve, more than half of Black-owned companies were turned down for loans: despite Black-owned companies being the most likely to apply for bank financing, less than 47 percent of applications were 100 percent funded, and if the applications were approved, they failed to receive 100 percent financing at a significantly higher rate. A survey published by the Federal Reserve Banks in 2020 found that Black-owned small businesses are “half as likely to have obtained bank funds” as white-owned businesses.
The extra layers of regulation and requirements add unnecessary hurdles to Black entrepreneurship, especially when it can take hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to get past the red tape, which is the case for natural hair braiding salons.
This can make for a nation scattered with Black hair deserts. And Black hair deserts can have implications for a Black community that go beyond having to travel to get a set of braids.
The Black salon is arguably a pillar of Black culture and the Black experience. It is a space completely separated from and impervious to the white gaze. It is not just a destination for hair services, but a cultural ecosystem in and of itself with its own social landscape and underground economy. There's camaraderie and community intimacy shared between chairs. Essential oils, food platters, DVDs, and CDs — they’ve all been sold to the patrons of salons and barbershops by Black folks who might not be able to find work in the main economy. "When I go to the salon, it's to me a lot more about talking to the stylist and talking with the people coming in and out," Jones says. "When I moved to Greenwich Village, the salon [I frequented] in Crown Heights, Brooklyn was one of the few places where it was mostly just Black women. It was a special place where I didn't have to explain, I could just be a Black woman and not worry about the white gaze. To me, [that’s] the more sort of concerning thing that we might lose when we don't have these spaces."
One of the Few: The Stylists
By definition, Black hair deserts guarantee that any hairstylists working on the ground are aware that they are "one of the few" or even the only stylist in their area who is well-versed in the language of textured hair.
DaraLyn is a 28-year-old hairstylist and esthetician who rents a station out of Blush Salon in Albany, Oregon. She received her Hair Design and Esthetician license in 2015, but learned how to work with textured hair while growing up and styling her own. "Once I went to beauty school I learned a bit more about textured hair, but it was more focused on relaxers," says DaraLyn. During beauty school, she had the opportunity to attend a hair show, at which she was able to sit in on a handful of classes on textured hair. DaraLyn currently offers a range of services: blowouts, box braids, cornrows, twist outs, crochet braids, wash-and-gos, and trims and cuts.
"I think there are few options for textured hair care because many stylists are scared of textured hair."
The stylist's clientele ranges in race and ethnicity. "I have a couple people that travel out of town at least an hour to come and see me," she shares, noting that it's a lot of parents who need help caring for both their and their children's hair texture.
DaraLyn says that the other stylists in her area who know how to work with textured hair are not active on social media. This, DaraLyn says, makes it harder for their work to be seen and to connect with potential clients. "I would say there is a demand in my area," she says. "I think there are few options for textured hair care because many stylists are scared of textured hair. They’re not educated on the styles [and] they don't want to mess up someone's hair because they don't understand it."
On the opposite coast of the U.S. exists this same fear and hesitancy towards textured hair. "There is a very high demand for Black hair care in my area, and there are very few stylists and customers who actually know about it," says Alizè Breary of Middletown, New York, a city in the Hudson Valley region of the state. Breary is the owner of The Hair Bar Orange County, one of the few natural hair salons in the area.
Breary has been working with hair since she was 11 years old, as her family rarely visited the salon when she was growing up. At The Hair Bar, Breary offers a wide range of services — knotless and box braids, faux locs, cornrows — but her expertise is in scalp analysis. Her clients are mainly Black and Hispanic women, she does the hair of everyone from ages three to 80, and she has clients who travel from New York City, Vermont, and even Virginia to see her.
In the Midwest, 32-year-old Denisa Ford-Washington says she is one of very few professional stylists who specialize in textured hair in her area of over 80,000 residents. She specializes in braids at her own salon, Natural Braiding & Beauty; she says she's the only Black professional stylist with a brick-and-mortar salon in her area. Serving such a large community means that Ford-Washington is booked up at least two weeks in advance. Originally from the Twin Cities, Ford-Washington's experience servicing her Duluth, Minnesota, community has been taxing.
"You're not just doing a service where you’re getting to know these clients, you actually are educating them as well," Ford-Washington says. "It puts a lot of weight and pressure on you to perform at a higher rate than a stylist in the cities… In a desert, no one knows what to do. [The clients can] overload you and it becomes somewhat overwhelming, because now you become the face and the voice of those that lack the components that are needed to keep their hair healthy."
"You're not just doing a service…you actually are educating clients as well. In a desert, no one knows what to do."
All three stylists Allure spoke with face moderate to significant demand for their services despite working in predominantly white communities. Ford-Washington has some clients that travel nearly three hours and across state lines to see her. But even though the work is steady, Black hair deserts narrow options for its residents, clients, and stylists. "The opportunities here are limited," Ford-Washington shares. “I shouldn't have to put my skills on hold to be in a desert where I have no chance of getting out. I think my clients are going to panic if there's not an up-and-coming stylist here that wants to take over… they're going to go back to traveling or not doing anything at all [to their hair]. I'm very grateful for the clientele I have now, but there's no room for growth here, there's no room to consult with any other stylists, there's no room for sisterhood here, because there's no other salons doing [braiding]. When I want to take classes to make sure my skills are up to par, I have to personally travel — and if I was in a predominantly Black area, I wouldn't have to do that." Perhaps that is one reason why other Black stylists aren't rushing to come to the area even though the need is evident.
When asked how more Black stylists and salons would impact the community of the areas they work in, all three of their answers were the same: it would be an unmistakably positive impact. "As a mixed woman, when I went to my first salon visit as an adult in my early 20s, I wanted [a stylist] who had my hair texture and looked like me," expresses DaraLyn.
Feeling uncomfortable about getting your hair done by a stylist who doesn't share your texture or skin color is a common sentiment among Black women, especially those who have experienced texturism in the past. "As a Black woman, I want to see a Black woman doing my hair. That's my preference," adds Jones. "I'm not confident that a white or non-Black person can style my hair, and [that’s] rooted in a racialized trust."
"I'm very grateful for the clientele I have now, but there's no room for growth here."
While Black women have spent years pushing for the desegregation of cosmetology curricula and imploring non-Black stylists to familiarize themselves with multiple hair types and textures, there is still a valid skepticism towards trusting a non-Black stylist with one's hair, qualifications or not. The long history of negligence, indifference, and disrespect towards Black women's hair in the cosmetology and beauty industries cannot be undone with just one texture education course.
Megan Cruz, executive director of the American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS), acknowledges the existence of Black hair deserts and is proud of the efforts being made by AACS — which includes schools as well as providers of educational products, tools, and curriculum. "Everyone is deeply engaged in creating a community of inclusion, belonging, and diversity within the beauty community," shares Cruz. "The two major academic content publishers, Milady and Pivot Point, have stepped up by partnering with textured hair experts to expand their education to include much more content about textured hair."
Sandra Bruce, vice president and general manager of Milady confirms that the current edition of Standard Cosmetology "includes nine chapters that have content related to natural and textured hair." "Additionally, Milady made a textured hair series of videos, lesson plans, and student quizzes available for free to all our customers in mid-2020. We also offer a standalone curriculum for Natural Haircare and Braiding," says Bruce. "After gathering feedback from customers and holding diversity and inclusion panel discussions with stakeholders from across the beauty industry, we are integrating more textured hair content throughout our print and digital resources. Our revised 14th Edition of Standard Cosmetology will release later this year."
But even while nationwide cosmetology courses are attempting to become more diverse, all but one of the stylists and clients we spoke to for this piece agree that the trust for non-Black stylists working on textured hair still isn’t there — even in a hair desert, where they may be the only nearby option.
Ford-Washington believes a significant portion of her clients would not be able to trust non-Black stylists in the area with their hair and would choose to travel instead. "No matter how much [a non-Black stylist is] educated, some of my African-American women, because that's who I pretty much serve, are just not buying that," she says. "Are [the stylists] learning just to get by, or are they learning because they're passionate? Because if they’re learning just to get by, they will treat you like a cookie: every client gets cut the same way, this is the one product you use." A more passionate stylist, Ford-Washington says, would likely be able to offer recommendations tailored to each individual client's hair needs.
Limited Options: The Residents
When 28-year-old Kay Kingsman first moved to Oregon for her undergraduate education, she was shocked by the stark absence of Black and brown people in comparison to her native California. (According to the 2019 U.S. Census estimates, Oregon’s population of about 4.2 million people is 2 percent Black.) Along with this surprise came the realization that she was now living in a Black hair desert. "I never had to really think about my hair before," shares Kingsman, who has always relied on stylists because she has a limited range of motion in her shoulders that prevents her from doing her own hair at home. "So immediately, I was not only abruptly confronted with having to switch my hair-care routine, but also the reality that me and my hair were truly alone. The experience has been frustrating and nerve-wracking, especially since I arrived in Oregon as a 17-year-old with low confidence in myself. And, with no one who related to my hair struggle, it was also very isolating."
Today, Kingsman lives in Portland, works full-time in manufacturing, and is also a travel blogger. It took Kingsman nearly a decade to find any stylist, let alone a reliable one that she could consistently visit. "When I first moved to Oregon, I tried for about a year to manage my own hair because I didn't trust any of the white hairstylists in my area," she recalls. But Kingsman's chronic pain made effective washing, blow drying, and styling on her own an extreme burden.
To ensure that her hair was thoroughly treated without damage (or prejudice), Kingsman flew back to Los Angeles every few months for hair care — but the extra hassle took a toll. “At one point, I shaved my head because it had gotten to be too much to deal with without a reliable stylist,” Kingsman says.
Eventually, Kingsman sought out stylists in her area that advertised "all-texture" services and consulted with two of them. One insisted that their knowledge of Black hair was better than Kingsman's own, immediately placing limits on what she could supposedly do with her hair because of her texture — even saying practices she had successfully done before, like bleaching and dyeing, would be impossible. The other stylist was more comfortable with textured hair, but had no gauge for tenderheaded-ness and could only execute one style: straightening. It was only a few months ago that Kingsman randomly found her now-regular stylist on Instagram, who she visits for braids or simple press and curls.
"I shaved my head because it had gotten to be too much to deal with without a reliable stylist."
In Wasilla, Alaska, Hope Wells learned to do hair via YouTube. Originally from North Carolina and Maryland, Wells has lived in Alaska for 27 years. (As of 2019, the Black population in Alaska made up 3.7 percent of the state's total.) Wells says that she and her family were the only Black people in the small towns they lived in, and that she knew of no Black stylists and salons within a 45 mile radius.
When Wells and her family first moved to Alaska, Wells kept her hair cut very short, relaxed her daughters' hair so they could use the limited hair care products available to them at the time — something she regrets doing for them at such a young age due to the texture damage she says the relaxer caused — and raised three boys without barbershops. "I was the barber, I am the barber, the beautician, everything," laughs Wells, who has recently started a loc journey. "Before YouTube, because my oldest son is 36, it was really trial and error." Searching for a professional stylist experienced in textured hair is difficult, and something Wells estimates would take them anywhere from an hour to six hours away from home.
But the trial of finding a Black hairstylist isn't just for those remote areas where the Black population is next to none. For Ambar Johnson, a 27-year-old creative and urban and transportation planner currently living in Boston (which is 25 percent Black as of 2019 Census info), where and how to access hair care are extremely important. Johnson, who has oscillated between "the urban Northeast and the rural South" for most of her life, has never owned a car. Finding hair care that is accessible by train, bus, or affordable rideshare ensures that she doesn't break the bank "in time or cost."
Johnson has had two trusted hairstylists in recent years. Both stylists took about a year to find, and both were found through word of mouth; by talking to other Black folks whose hair she liked and asking the right questions, she was able to start vetting potential stylists' execution and environments on Instagram. "It's important I know what the stylist's and/or salon's skills and values are," says Johnson. At her now-regular salon in Boston, she normally visits for shampoo presses or twist outs. Before finding her go-to salon, Johnson had even considered traveling as far as Atlanta for hair care, which is something she says her friends do.
In addition to a well-executed hairstyle, what Johnson hopes to get out of her salon experience is community. "Camaraderie and community," says Johnson. "A friend of mine was telling me that her grandmother has had the same stylist for over 40 years. I’m looking for that kind of bond."
"I love to feel included in salon discussions and feel a part of the Black community, especially in Oregon and other areas with hair deserts where it may not be as easy to find your way into a community," voices Kingsman. "I want to feel comfortable and taken care of. I want to know that the stylist cares about my hair and how my hair makes me feel about myself. Hair is extremely important when it comes to Black people and Black women, and having a stylist that knows it's not 'just hair' is the extra insightfulness that I am looking for."
"A friend of mine was telling me that her grandmother has had the same stylist for over 40 years. I’m looking for that kind of bond."
"I would sit in the chair every six days [if I could]," confesses Wells. "It's something about going into a Black salon… when you're out in a hair desert, you miss those experiences. I feel like that was a very important part of my growing up. My sisters and I, we talk about it now, how we had to sit and wait for hours [at the salon], we laugh about it, but you miss it — that's a part of our Black community, a part of our Black heritage. So much gets talked about and so much is learned in the salon. That's one of the regrets… Alaska has been good to us, but one of the regrets that I have is [all my kids] missed out on a lot of Black culture."
Wells doesn't necessarily believe that her community would benefit financially from Black salons and stylists, due to the extremely low population of Black people in her area, but believes that it may bring the Black folks that are in the area together. A salon that services textured hair could be a community-building asset.
Kingsman observes that the few Black stylists she's found are almost always fully booked with clients. The demand is present and strong — yet, there are still so few options.
"I think a lot of times, the concept of a hair desert existing is attributed to there not being enough demand," muses Kingsman. "It's easy to say 'Well, there's no or very little Black people in Oregon, so obviously why would there be Black stylists or stylists who can properly manage Afro-textured hair?' I strongly disagree with that statement. The demand is there, regardless of the percentage, the suppliers just don't care." Kingsman believes that hairstylists should be taught how to manage all hair textures and types, independent of what their own hair is or what the majority population has, and otherwise take it upon themselves to learn all that they can about textured hair. "Hair salons should be ensuring that they have at least one person in their salon that can service a client with afro-textured hair, and if not, invest in their stylists' training so that they can," Kingsman continues.
If there were a non-Black stylist confident in their skills when it came to textured hair, Kingsman says she would trust her scalp in their hands. But for Johnson, skill level is a moot point. "No," Johnson maintains. "Getting your hair done is more than a service. It's a sacred cultural experience."
Where Do We Go From Here?
The existence of Black hair deserts is beginning to permeate the national consciousness. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver recently aired a segment on Black hair that aimed to both analyze why Black hair is still such a divisive point of contention in America and raise awareness on what can be done to solve hair discrimination. And while the passage of CROWN Acts and the deregulation of natural hair braiding can contribute to the communities within Black hair deserts, the issue of eradicating those that already exist and completely preventing the creation of new ones remains.
"When we start to detangle the factors that create hair deserts, we not only eliminate hair deserts but other issues that snag on the quality of our lives."
The stylists we spoke to agree that this will come down to an overhaul of all parts of cosmetology's educational system (particularly the training of non-Black stylists on how to care for and style Afro-textured hair), but also the active recruitment of Black stylists where there are none and addressing the obstructions in place that hinder Black stylists from opening shops in these areas — because even with a comprehensive texture education, building trust between Black women and non-Black stylists is going to take time.
According to Johnson, "It first starts with seeing hair deserts as a symptom of a much larger problem that impacts urban and rural communities — like development, land use, and urban planning policies. We must take a holistic view of the landscape we operate in. They're all tangled together. When we start to detangle the factors that create hair deserts, we not only eliminate hair deserts but other issues that snag on the quality of our lives. We must take the same care and attentiveness we use towards hair towards our communities and people we are in community with."
Because it was never "just hair" for us. White supremacy made it so, but we made it this: our hair is our belonging, our history, and our home. It is our pride and our empowerment, and it is the defiant, resilient, lush flora of even the harshest hair desert.
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