“Let Me Be Black. I Let Y’all Be Foreign”: Nail Salons, Beauty Supplies, & the Quest for a Black Economy

Now, usually I don’t do this. By “this,” I mean muse on these types of user-generated viral videos that infect my newsfeed. But have a look at this. {“Let Her Be Black”}

let her be black screenshot

I don’t have any remarks on the video itself, but it (re)sparked my curiosity about a subject to which I can personally relate. I like to get my nails done on a pretty regular basis. It’s a habit I picked up from my mom, who, to my recollection, has never gone a day without either having or being on her way to get a professional manicure. At one point last year, frustrated to the tenth power about a disappointing customer service experience at my regular salon, I took to Facebook to poll my friends about whether they knew of any Black-owned nail salons in my city. To be clear, I could have just found another salon without regard for the owners’ race. I’m not suggesting that the poor customer service I received was a direct reflection of the cultural differences between myself and the salon staff. But this experience took place in the wake of the verdict for Michael Brown’s murderer, and social media was aflutter with calls to patronize Black-owned businesses and to support our own economy since we could not trust the powers that be in the U.S. to protect our well-being. So it seemed opportune to reassess where I funneled my money for my pampering habits anyways. Disappointingly but unsurprisingly, I received only two referrals to Black nail technicians and neither of them worked in a physical salon location, let alone owned the business itself. With no intention to stop getting my nails done, I abandoned my efforts at finding a Black-owned nail salon and went elsewhere. But questions about this remained in the back of my mind. So when this video stumbled upon me yesterday and reminded me of that dilemma, I took advantage of good ol’ Google and sought some answers.

I wanted to know why certain urban beauty service and supply industries, largely operated by Korean-American and Vietnamese-American immigrant communities, did not have Black-owned alternatives readily available. Was it just an oversight on the part of Black entrepreneurs? Couldn’t be. A couple hours’ worth of research alone revealed a fascinating and intricate history that must be taken into consideration if we are to discuss how the beauty industry relates to a Black economy.

Professional nail care is reportedly an $8 billion industry (source). I was intrigued to find that the origin story of nail care and the Vietnamese-American community is one of happenstance involving a 70s Hollywood movie star and 20 refugee women. Tippi Hedren, best known for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror The Birds, met with a group of women in Sacramento, California who had sought refuge from a Communist takeover in South Vietnam. Hedren had been attempting to think of a trade the women could be taught to support themselves, and discovered upon meeting them that they were fascinated with her manicure. This prompted Hedren to fly in her personal manicurist and recruit the assistance of a local beauty school to train the women in the craft of nail care, equipping them with the ability to offer an in-demand service for prices that were much lower than the current industry standard. Not only did this catalyze a niche industry for the Vietnamese refugee women to sustain their new lives in the States, but it provided them with a steady flow of income to be able to send back to relatives in Vietnam.  Additionally, it was a skill that required very little proficiency in the English language, so it was not only lucrative, but also easily teachable and applicable. Though the story raised suspicions for me a bit, as it drips of a white savior narrative, it helped me contextualize something that has become a norm in all ethnically diverse, urban neighborhoods I’ve encountered.

Tippi Bird bw (2)
Tippi Hedren

The beauty supply industry doesn’t stray from that norm.  Madame Noir published a piece five years ago that explores how the Korean-American community came to dominate wig and weave supply stores in neighborhoods with a high concentration of Black residents. According to this article, the Korean monopoly over beauty supply stores with Black women as their target demographic can be traced back to 1965 when Yung Ho Chang, vice-director of Korean Trade Promotion, made a very strategic push to monopolize the wig industry. Noting that his company had exported $100 million worth of wigs within a span of 13 years, Yung Ho Chang collaborated with wig merchants and the Korean government to outlaw the export of raw hair, which meant that wigs and weaves could only be purchased having already been manufactured in Korea. Shortly after this law was passed, the U.S. passed another outlawing any wig that contained hair from China, solidifying South Korea’s stronghold on the market. At the time of Madame Noir’s report, there were 9,000 Korean-owned beauty supplies serving predominantly Black consumers.

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Remember in “Doo Wop (That Thing)” when Lauryn Hill says “Look at where you been. Hair weaves like Europeans, fake nails done by Koreans. Come again?” If you’re engaged in the topic of how to empower the Black dollar by reconsidering our everyday spending habits, Ms. Hill definitely has a point. The research I just summarized merely scratches the surface of what there is to know about the urban beauty industry, but it’s a surface that I think we graze over too often in our haste to critique Black consumers on both their aesthetic and economic choices. I didn’t even begin to address the role that inexpensive labor and questionable work environments play in the nature of these industries. But another important facet of understanding why immigrant communities have flourished in these niche markets is the creation of infrastructures that sustain them. For instance, Madame Noire noted, “Despite the fact that Koreans may be competitive even amongst one another, like many other ethnic groups, they have fostered a collaborative entrepreneurial spirit through establishing banks and business associations.” That sort of infrastructure is one solution that many advocates for Black economic development have called for as well.

Allow me to summarize my take-aways from my brief but enlightening research about beauty services and supplies targeting Black consumers and what it can teach us about fostering a strong Black economy with our everyday spending habits.

  • Knowledge: We should familiarize ourselves with the historical and contemporary relationship between Immigrant-American communities and urban beauty services & supplies so that we’re not as quick to draw uninformed comparisons and contrasts between these and Black economic bases. It’s also important to gain an understanding for the ways in which Black Americans have been strategically marginalized in these industries as we work to develop alternatives.
  • Strategy: We should form neighborhood or region-based collectives to ideate, fund, and implement service businesses that fulfill everyday needs for our community, and establish connections with people in various economic classes who support the mission to empower the Black economy.
  • Ideology: People are going to get their nails done. And people are going to style, maintain, and sometimes buy their hair. So rather than focusing on encouraging people to stop patronizing certain beauty service and supply business (which is entirely unrealistic in a society that still rewards a particular standard of beauty, and also because pampering is a fun and perfectly reasonable form of self-care), we should promote the value of learning these vocations and perhaps amplify these skill sets as trades for people who traditionally struggle with gaining employment in other professions for various reasons.

Even with rudimentary research on this topic, I’m left with some things to think about. Share some of your takeaways or more in depth knowledge!

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One thought on ““Let Me Be Black. I Let Y’all Be Foreign”: Nail Salons, Beauty Supplies, & the Quest for a Black Economy

  1. Wow! I never knew the history behind the over saturation of Koreans in the nail and hair industry. This was so nicely written and very informative! I completely agree with your take aways; if we are the primary consumers of this product(s), we should be the primary providers. Love it!

    Liked by 1 person

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