Standing in the Afro hair megastore after the long journey, I became Charlie; this was my chocolate factory – shelves and shelves of treats at my reach. Deep conditioner and durags. Bundles and braids.
Cocoa butter and crochet twists. An abundance of products designed for the complexities of Black beauty. My joy, however, was often short lived, for the distinct experience of anti-Blackness would sour the proceedings.
Four times a year, my mother, grandmother and I would make the pilgrimage from Buckinghamshire to the East London Black hair shops. Growing up, Afro-Caribbean cosmetics were confined to specialist shops in multi-cultural areas meaning that for those of us that lived outside of big cities, something as basic as finding appropriate shampoo for our hair texture was a myth.
It’s a deeply uncomfortable conversation, but Black Britons have long expressed that their hair shop experience is often served with a side of racial profiling, micro- and just plain ol’ aggression. Although official figures on the racial breakdown of Black hair shop owners in the UK are unavailable, it is common thought that most afro hair shops in the country are owned by South Asian men, who, although being people of colour, are far from immune to perpetuating anti-Black sentiments.
“The shop owner and his workers will often follow me round the store, staring as if I’m going to steal any second,” begins Diko Blackings, a Diversity Manager from Oxford. “They will peer into my bag to see if there’s anything in there. After they’ve done this they almost always come up to me and ask if they can help. I hate it. I want to browse without question and suspicion.”
Beyond the discomfort of racial profiling, I have been pushed illegal bleaching creams by shop keepers insisting that they’d help me become a “pretty girl”, the underlying message here being that my dark skin was an obstacle to my beauty.
After years of tension and maltreatment it was an initial relief, to myself, Diko, and so many other Black women, when mainstream high street retailers finally began to acknowledge the existence of their Black customers.
“I really enjoy being able to go to the Superdrug near me knowing I’ll be able to get the majority of products that I need,” says Diko. “I can find a range of shampoo, conditioners, curling cremes, gels for natural hair and shampoo. I used to have to travel to London or buy it all online.”
Although there is benefit to the improved visibility and accessibility of Afro hair care, yet again, Black patrons are still treated as second class citizens in the shopping experience despite spending 9 times more on hair and beauty than white consumers.
Last month, award nominated lifestyle and beauty blogger Demi Colleen went into West Ealing Boots to buy some emergency hair care, just to find most of the Afro products were not on the shelves. Instead, they were replaced with “dummy” products that instructed customers to request the real products at the till, while others had anti- theft security tags stuck on them.
Documenting her shock on her insta story, Demi exposed how only hair care products targeted at Black customers were tagged, while products aimed at white consumers did not require this additional customer service assistance. The whole experience left Demi feeling mortified.
“It’s racial profiling, plain and simple,” she explains. “There’s a stereotype placed on the Black community that we are more likely to steal. If hair products were generally a highly stolen item, I would expect to see it across all products and not just afro products. It’s a generalising statement that only one demographic does this behaviour when there’s no evidence to back it up.”
It’s not the first time that Boots has been caught in this discriminatory practice – in 2019 makeup artist Natasha Wright posted a video online showing rows of Black hair essentials sealed with these security labels despite there being rows of untagged products for white hair, including Aussie and L’Oreal, some costing in excess of a tenner.
The British high street retailer is not alone. Over the pond a similar discussion is taking place about ‘Shopping Whilst Black’, with American superstore Walmart being accused of similar behaviour on multiple occasions – segregating Afro hair products under lock and key. In January 2018, a California woman filed a lawsuit against Walmart. Essie Grundy, argued that the company violated her civil rights by keeping Black hair care products locked up in a glass antitheft case.
So how can retailers make amends? “This is actually something I am hoping to discuss with Boots directly very soon,” Demi adds. “I hope we can have an open and productive discussion that starts with them acknowledging and apologise for their violence. It needs to start with not allowing managers to make decisions that negatively isolate marginalised communities. Where is the training to ensure that store managers are not putting discriminatory practices in place?”
A spokesperson for Boots said: “We security tag products so that they remain available for people to buy. In this particular store this includes a wide range of product lines including some self-selection makeup, skin care, baby products and electrical beauty.
We want everyone to feel welcome at Boots and have listened to the feedback around the tagging of these specific products very carefully. As a result we are exploring other ways to make sure that these products remain available. We also are making a lot of progress in expanding and stocking new, more diverse ranges of products so that we meet the needs of all our customers.”
For so many of us, regardless of race, hair care is self care. It is a disappointing irony that in pursuit of this, Black people continue to face disportionate policing and embarrassment – a common theme it seems even when we carry out the most mundane of tasks. The widespread nature of this form of racial profiling points to a society that still unfairly criminalises Black customers and lessens our dignity. I’m looking forward to retailers doing better – I am excited about a time where I can pick up a bottle of shampoo is just that: buying a bottle of shampoo.