A little background
Last fall I was the keynote speaker at a an event for current and future cosmetics chemists. My topic was Encouraging Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Not to Be Hidden Figures. I included history of women in the sciences going back hundreds– if not thousands– of years who were mostly behind the scenes. I also peppered my talk with strong reminders not to continue that depressing trend. It was thrilling to see such a diverse group of women of different backgrounds, nationalities, ages and stages of their careers taking part.
One of the other speakers on the panel was a brilliant African American chemist who shared her findings on the trends in products for African American hair care needs and future trends, but back to that in a minute.
Expelled for her braids
Yesterday, social media was ablaze with a story of a young black girl expelled from her New Orleans Catholic school because of her braids. According to a statement made by her brother, the sixth-grader needed those extensions so that she would be able to go to the pool every day without redoing her hair every single night.
Earlier this summer, The Atlantic ran an eye-opening story about how a lack of swim cap options can keep black women out of pools. Essence did a deeper dive into the topic, citing racism as a factor preventing black women from participating in aquatic sports.
Back to the conference
Remember the speaker I mentioned who discussed her findings on trends for African American hair care products and the future of the industry? What I didn’t mention is the fact that she was employed by a global hair care corporation. She shared slides on her topics, discussed the very particular needs of African American hair and how years of unsafe treatments had led to a tradition of damaged hair. Only there was something off about her slides.
While the expert on African American hair spoke knowledgeably about her topic, she had only generic images and no visual or lab data in the form of studies to back up what she knew, tracked and predicted. Can you guess why? Because despite the fact that the black consumer in America spends an amazing amount of money on hair care and skincare, the mega corporation that employed the scientist I intentionally did not mention by name, used samples of Indian, Caucasian and Asian hair in their lab studies instead of African American hair.
Ignoring black influence
Early this year, Nielsen released a report on the staggering spending power of the black consumer. “African Americans make up 14% of the U.S. population but have outsized influence over spending on essential items,” the findings reported. More than that, “African Americans have cornered the ethnic hair and beauty market, ringing up $54 million of the $63 million total industry spend in 2017.” An interesting tidbit was the fact that black consumers don’t only spend on products created specifically to appeal to them, they buy what they like.
Here’s the thing, whether or not black consumers shop for products created specifically for them, or rather enjoy shopping all the beauty aisles, it’s insulting and demeaning to try work around their specific skin and hair care requirements. It’s also bad business.
In the early 1900s cosmetics entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker –one of America’s first self-made millionaires– created the first line of beauty and hair care products specifically for black women. It’s astounding to think that nearly 100 years later we’re still waiting for the beauty industry to catch up.
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