African American women have historically had a vexing love-hate relationship with their hair that has translated into a billion dollar ethnic hair care industry. It is no coincidence that the first Black and the first female millionaire was a woman who marketed hot irons, hair relaxers and skin bleaching creme (quiet as its kept) to anxious Black women.
We arrived in America stripped of our clothes, our artifacts, and our customs. We were told that we were ugly. We were taught to hate ourselves in a natural form... though simultaneously touted as sexualized, exotic objects. Black beauty has a baffling history in this country, but no more complex than the history of Black American identity in itself. So, perhaps it is a firmly rooted insecurity (though not a monolithic one) that feeds the industry. How else might we explain that African-Americans are 12 percent of the population and account for 30 percent of all hair care products sold in America, and a whopping 70 percent of hair extensions and weaves sold domestically.
At one point our predilection for hair products was a huge asset to the Black community. Confused by our hair texture and beauty rituals, white companies overlooked the Black hair industry for many years. The Revlons of the world didn' t believe that Black women a worthwhile demographic to sell beauty to. Consequently, Black salons and hair care manufacturers created a thriving internal economy within the Black community that not only created numerous jobs at all levels but also created a space for Black entrepreneurhship and fueled the Black middle class. Money from the Black hair care industry even funded civil rights movement significantly because these were the backers who did not answer in any way to Whites.
So what happened? In the 1970's Corporate America took notice. They recognized a ripe opportunity for financial growth in the cosmetics industry through the Black consumer. They began to buy up small Black owned manufacturers, keeping the Black name, the Black model on the package, and perhaps a few Black executives around for advice. This was the first round of defeat.
The following decade, Koreans recognized the financial opportunity in the distribution of black beauty products. Aided by the American governement's immigration laws and liberal grants supplied to Asian immigrants willing to do business in Black communities, Koreans ultimately gained a monopoly over the distribution and sale of Black hair care products, wigs and hair extensions. Seriously, how many Black owned beauty supply stores are there in your neighborhood? Actually, when is the last time you seen a Black nail technician? Just curious about that one.
Nevertheless, moves were made to gradually block Black business owners from selling Black beauty products. The current market monopoly is identical to the Wal-Mart effect, except there is a deliberate factor of discrimination. Korean owned distribution companies purchase products at a discount from White manufacturers and Korean hair manufacturers (America has blocked the import of hair from China). They in turn sell products and hair whole sale to Korean proprietors which allows them to undercut the price of the products being sold by their African American counter parts. Thus, when a Black woman comes in asking for Dr. Miracle Hair relaxer and it's 75 cents cheaper at the Korean store than it is from the Black owned store, she supports the former. In this way, Black stores are choked out of businesss. I am friends with a couple who owns the only Black owned beauty supply store in the state of Connecticut and they can relate that it is an uphill battle for them to stay in business across the street from two Asian suppliers that arrived in recent years.
As you'll find out, what's happening now is that the few remaining Black manufacturers of products and supplies are being forced out of business as Korean companies copy their formulas, market them, and the distributors stop buying the original.
This is all a devastating phenomena to the Black community because about 90 percent of every dollar we spend on hair products goes OUT of our community. Furthermore, the beauty industry has been a crucial support within the Black economic infrastructure, one that we should fear losing, and eagerly want to regain. Unemployment is twice as high in the Black community as it is in the White community. Poverty and homelessness effects us at a much greater proportion than other groups. When are we going to begin to reform our own communities? The networth of Black America is that of a small country. We should feel obligated to recylce that Black dollar. We should be tired of being tapped. Most of the companie that we give our money to barely (if at all) hire Blacks or support Black business. So why are we so apt to support theirs?
Film maker Aron Ranen created a documentary profiling the Korean monopoly over the distribution of Black hair care products and and the efforts of one new grassroots organization, the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA), to counteract it. It is well done, moving, and worth being watched, discussed, and passed around. (Please email this blog to your girl friends and bring it up in the beauty shop as you wait to get your hair done). Aron felt so strongly about the plight of the Black beauty industry that he posted the entire work on Youtube for public consumption. I've embedded it in it's entireity below. You will be blown away. And next time you pull out your wallet to purchase some Dudley's or Dark and Lovely, please remember the impact that your dollar can make. Be a conscious consumer.
part 4 (update)
Purchase a dvd here: www.blackhairdvd.com