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The Makings of a Black Hair Desert

You’ve heard of a food desert, but what about one for black hair stylists? Get the intriguing story about hair deserts from Kaitlyn McNab at The Melanin Edit at Allure.

Credit: Brittany M. Reid

How entire swaths of the United States became regions where people with Afro-textured hair must travel miles to find a trusted stylist — if they can even find one at all. 

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.

n 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, 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.

Deserted

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 practicessuch 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.

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.”

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.

Vanessa Roberson

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