Black hair is a sacred and sensitive topic of much politicisation, discussion, and ridicule — going to a Black braider is a welcome release from all that stress. When you sit in the salon chair of a Black stylist, the ideal situation is to have your hair in the hands of someone who understands its history, textures, and requirements, allowing you a few precious hours of reprieve. Most of the time, in the braiding shops with stylists that I trust, this rings true. However, Black salons haven’t always been safe spaces for me.
As a femme-presenting Black lesbian, I’ve noticed conservative opinions surrounding women’s autonomy, sexism, marriage, and queerness arise from certain braiders while I’m just trying to get my hair washed and blow-dried. It’s a jarring feeling after usually being met with warmth, kindness, and comfort in hair-braiding environments. At first, there’s an instant feeling of community and comradery. I’m complimented on my hair volume and health. I often start fun small talk with the other patrons. But at a certain point in the appointment, the conversation gets uncomfortable.
I once remember wishing I could sink into the water while getting my hair washed because a heated debate started about trans teens competing in sports. A news story came on a midday news broadcast about the national ban on trans athletes in girls’ sports. The news segment told the story of two Black trans girls and most people in the salon agreed with the stance that they had no place competing. Not only do I vehemently disagree with these opinions, they also go against my identity as a Black queer person.
Another time, a stylist was parting my hair while enthusiastically agreeing with a sermon from a female pastor preaching about the need for women in the Black community to submit to men. And I’ve been in salons multiple times when a hairstylist has a full-blown audible conversation on the phone with friends about relationship drama. This usually results in reductive conversations about how a woman needs to work harder to sustain a hetero-romantic relationship. I’ve found that the people spewing these conservative talking points expect these views to be an extension of our bonding, but more often than not, my feelings aren’t considered as I’m not brought into the conversation. I don’t read as a stereotypically queer person, nor do I bring up my stance on feminism five minutes after meeting someone. Since they don’t know what my politics are, there’s an assumption that I’ll go along with these conservative talking points. And because I’m usually in an excruciating state of discomfort, I don’t interject.
I recently spoke with a friend about their experience as a Black queer person going into these establishments, and it turns out they’ve had similar experiences. “Every time I’ve gone to a new braider I was unfamiliar with, or who wasn’t vetted by friends and community, there was always the underlying worry that the person could misunderstand me, and other concepts of gender,” my friend said. “As the customer, you’re sort of expected to go along with casual homophobia and the spectre of the ‘other’ — in this case, Black queer people.”
So many of these sentiments seem to come from older or middle-aged Black woman braiders. After my mother, who was responsible for helping me with the upkeep of my hair, passed away in 2019, I chose to keep my hair braided. This has put me in the position to observe several hair braiders over the years. And while I know some salons can be safe spaces, I’m tired of being met with ignorance and hateful opinions while getting my hair washed or box braids installed. The reality is that within our communities, these antiquated ideas of gender and relationships are still prevalent, and we know that church culture is part of the reason for these outdated notions. There are many Black people, particularly older generations, who view any kind of queerness or anything outside of the heterosexual nuclear family unit as a detriment to the Black community. I’ve even heard people say that queerness is a scheme of white supremacy to harm the Black diaspora. While I know these concerns can come from pain and are effects of the history of colonialism, they’re still backward sentiments that have no validity. It’s important to hold space for understanding but also to do away with this harmful rhetoric. Conversations across generations are deeply needed, but not at the expense of those who have to fight for their humanity to be considered most.
Many cultural spaces are just microcosms of our larger society — hair salons are no different. The conversations being had in those four walls, amidst the mounds of edge control and the bevvy of wide tooth combs, are a reflection of the talks being had throughout our communities. But given that these ideas aren’t inclusive of all of us, shouldn’t salon owners be more careful about the environments they’re creating? Most importantly, they need to understand the importance of intersectionality, consider how topics are discussed, and how they affect them and their customers like me. It’s ironic that the very service Black salons provide started as a radical act and continues to be today, yet such conservative views continue to persist in these establishments.
I understand that sometimes these views are subconsciously a defence mechanism against white supremacy (especially since Black people providing racialised services are often undermined and not given the proper respect they deserve), but these realities don’t excuse creating insular environments that are only safe for certain customers and not for others, who are usually experiencing equally or more devastating oppression outside of those doors.
It’s important to remember the significance of Black hair salons and how certain cultural spaces come to be. Braiding hairstyles have been used as visual signifiers to proudly self-identify. During the 1960s and 70s, the natural hair movement was in full swing, and Black people began to reject Eurocentric beauty standards. (Cicely Tyson wore the first cornrows on television on the CBS series East Side, West Side in 1962.) It’s equally essential to remember how they connect to current social climates. In 2017, a preparatory academy in Montverde, Florida, asked a Black teenage girl to change her natural hair because it violated the school’s dress code; and in 2018, a middle-school student in Gretna, Louisiana was removed from school due to her braided extensions. There have been numerous cases of Black women who have been offered jobs and been asked to cut off their braids and locs. All of these discriminatory actions culminated in the Crown Act.
To have your hair respected and taken care of — while also feeling safe with the people around you — should be the standard. Black braiders at large must remember the struggles that so many other Black people bring with them into their salon chairs. We all know the feeling of being spoken about as if your existence is up for debate. So why do it to each other?
Going in to get my hair braided gives me a sense of security and has become a constant in my life. Most of the salons I frequent are safe and encouraging places to explore the wonders of my hair. It’s a shame that all salons can’t be this way. I want to be able to go into these cultural institutions without having to hold my breath.
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