The Case For Recognizing Black Hair Care Shops As The Essential Service They Are

Grocery stores and pharmacies don't carry the products tied to our physical and mental health.

On a Sunday five weeks into social distancing, I found myself staring at the handful of creams and oils I had left in my hair-care closet, and wondered just how many days they’d last me. I’ve long dedicated lazy Sundays to my hair-care routine — the “wash day,” equal parts dreadful and glorious thanks to the intricate textures of kinky, coily Black hair. But had I known the COVID-19 crisis would last longer than a month, closing Black hair-care stores provincewide, I would have planned my hair-care regimen accordingly.

Black hair requires its own techniques and an extensive list of products rarely found outside Black beauty shops — the ones the Government of Ontario has decided are non-essential, alongside nail salons and beauty bars. However, while most people can find the products used for manicures and facials at pharmacies and grocery stores that remain “essential,” Black hair-care products have become difficult or impossible to find.

Readily available grocery-store products can have detrimental effects on Black hair.
SensorSpot via Getty Images
Readily available grocery-store products can have detrimental effects on Black hair.

Black people’s suffering and needs have always been overlooked, and continue to be — from the data gap that exists in measuring Black students’ success, to the way police in cities like Toronto have refused to collect race-based arrest data (all the better to deny racial profiling), to the hazardous lack of racial data collected in Canadian health care. We know from American data that the novel coronavirus is killing Black people at alarming rates compared to other races; yet in Canada, our health-care data rarely account for inequalities based on race and class. No province or territory collects race-based health data, and Toronto’s public health unit only started collecting COVID-19 data with race and income in mind weeks ago.

So, while hair care isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s not surprising that the policymakers and governments who have the power to define “essential” did not consider the needs of Black people.

What they’re missing is that hair care is not at all trivial to Black people. A lack of access to maintenance and styling products affects our mental health, self-esteem and what sense of community’s left amid social distancing.

“The way Black people wear and take care of our hair is nothing short of a political act.”

Growing up, I remember spending hours in hair salons every weekend, first propped up between my mother’s knees as she got her hair done, then getting my own prepared for the school week ahead. My mother and other women spoke in our native tongue about the hardships they faced as immigrants, all the while getting hair-dos reminiscent of their past lives back home in Ghana. These hair salon visits actualized my connection between community, culture and hair.

But it wasn’t until India Arie declared “[she] was not her hair” in 2005, when I was 11, that I had the words to describe my journey with my hair and the power held in its strands.

There's a lot of pride and cultural significance in the Black hair-care methods we pass from generation to generation.
Peathegee Inc via Getty Images
There's a lot of pride and cultural significance in the Black hair-care methods we pass from generation to generation.

Across Black communities, outward expressions of culture are a testament to our strength, resilience and beauty against colonialism, and a rejection of Westernized standards of beauty. The way Black people wear and take care of our hair is nothing short of a political act, a spiritual exchange between mind, body and soul.

If Black people don’t have access to hair-care services due to social distancing, and all they mean to us, we should at the very least be given the option to buy the products we need to take care of our hair in our homes.

More than washing your hair

On a Zoom call with a few of my white friends, one in particular was confused by my COVID-19 hair-care woes. “Why don’t you just not do your hair?” she asked. Of course, I understood that by “do,” she meant to twist, braid or weave the styles she had seen me wear in the past, but for some non-Black people, it seems Black hair remains a mystery that Garnier Fructis can’t solve. It’s far more than washing your hair.

Most Black women start with a hydrating shampoo wash and deep-conditioning treatments, followed by a nourishing hair mask — an involved process of applying thick custards of raw, West African shea butter and Jamaican Black castor oils to curls, coils and kinks. When the mask is rinsed out, hours and hours later, the trusty “L.O.C” method (leave-in conditioner, rich oil and thick cream) seals in moisture, heals and protects.

“We have few convenient and accessible alternatives.”

Black men also need wave creams and hair and beard oils, and at this point are unable to buy du-rags to protect or hide the state of their hair growth sans barbershops.

I recently made the trip down to the sparsely stocked “ethnic” hair-care section at my local grocery store, and made do with whatever Shea Moisture products I could find. The shelves were bare of the unrefined hair butters and natural oils Black men and women need, but we have few convenient and accessible alternatives.

Beauty supply shops are few and far between in the GTA, and for those still open and offering online orders, shipping can be slow and expensive — difficult to swallow for anyone with a tight budget. There are even fewer options for those without internet access to begin with.

Black people's needs are too often disregarded as inessential.
Rahima Gambo via Getty Images
Black people's needs are too often disregarded as inessential.

The lives of Black people deserve to be considered when decisions regarding our livelihood are made. The erasure of our voices and silencing of our needs is a tale far too old to disregard.

When LCBO and Beer Stores in Ontario were rumoured to close down, people nearly lost their minds. As a result, the Ontario government kept these stores open. If outcry is motivation enough for policymakers, the widespread pleadings of Black Ontarians in need of essential products ought to receive the same affirmative energy.

I miss the normalcy of my Sunday hair-care routine, the joy I found reading product labels and searching through beauty supply aisles for new products to try. Above all, I miss the tender love and care my hair received from products specifically made for my hair.

In the coming weeks, as governments allow more businesses to re-open, they should consider Black people’s needs and recognize our hair-care outlets as the essential services they are.

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