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Let’s Talk About the Black UK Hairdresser…

by akesha / last updated July 14, 2020

black uk hairdresser

In 2020 racial inequality has been spoken about more than it has ever been in recent years. With the Black Lives Matter campaign at the forefront of people’s minds, whole industries have looked inwardly at the racial bias that takes place within their structures – including in the hairdressing industry. June Forbes is a freelance hairdresser, educator and industry consultant with over three decades experience. Here, she talks us about the invisibility of the Black hairdresser and how the industry can work to promote Black creatives beyond tokenism…

The Invisibility of the Black Hairdresser

Recent events have raised a magnifying glass over the racially discriminatory practices and biases of many industries in the UK and indeed worldwide. Hairdressing has not escaped the intensity of its gaze. In June 2020, Jemima Bradley brought the lack of diversity in the education sector to the fore amid the rising tide in the push for ‘Afro’ hair; as it is commonly referred to within the industry, to become a mandatory part of the training curriculum for all hairdressers. However, what is apparent to many Black stylists is their invisibility across the entire sector.

One thing I know for certain, is that due to the dictates and limitations of current training standards, the majority of professionally qualified African Caribbean stylists are adept at working on European hair. Many of them are often highly skilled universal hairdressers, yet this is not reflected in the coveted spaces occupied by the session or media stylist. Though it could be argued that; in part this is due to a lack of professional representation via PR agencies etc.

I can probably count on one hand the Black hairdressers who are employed to work with anyone other than the Black celebrities or models in these high profile arenas (and their work is often not credited when they do). Furthermore, they are rarely found working in what would be considered a prestigious or high-profile salon. When they are there; even though they may possess advanced skills; their presence is often tokenised as ‘The Afro Stylist’ as opposed to being part of the mainstream team. I should know, I have been there myself despite having little ‘Afro’ hairdressing experience at the time. Even more shameful is the fact that Black hairdressers say that they sometimes feel the need to minimise the exposure of their work on African Caribbean hair for fear of becoming marginalised by the mainstream.

It has not escaped the attention of the Black hairdressing community that the White stylists who do have universal skills are often held in high regard by the industry. A sentiment confirmed by the fact that it is not uncommon for White hairdressers to be rewarded with accolades in Afro hairdressing categories of industry competitions. This is not to diminish their skills but conversely, the same cannot equally be said of their Black counterparts where there is a lack of visibility in the mainstream categories.

It also cannot be denied that many more recent styling trends are a metamorphosis or appropriation of African Caribbean culture. Nonetheless, there is an underlying feeling that the Black ‘Afro’ hairdressing specialist is regarded as the poor relation.

The Slowing of Momentum

The cry for ‘Afro’ hair to be included in formal training programmes is not new. During the late 1980’s Sandra Gittens, Head of Hair and also Director of Programmes for a suite of access to higher education programmes; including Hair and Make Up for Fashion and Film, TV and Theatre at the London College of Fashion/University of The Arts London, fought long and hard to set all hair types on an equal footing.

Yet, rather than gathering momentum, the importance of this seemed to diminish over the years. So, with the current push for more comprehensive training in ‘Afro’ hair to become an integrated part of the syllabus, where are the voices of the experts? ‘Afro’ hair salons have been established in the UK since the 1940’s yet there is not a proportionate representation of Black hairdressers on training boards or operational within the decision-making bodies. Surely, we should be at the table for these conversations as it is us who should be imparting our knowledge and skills. Furthermore, no longer do the excuses of the lack of formal training hold true.

The most recent public census in 2011 revealed that the mixed-race population in Britain was the fastest growing demographic. It is an indictment on the industry that in 21st Century Britain, hairdressing skills and opportunities are still so unequally distributed.

Currently the nation is scrambling to address the racism that has stifled the progress of many and has prevented the country from truly benefitting socially and economically from being a multicultural society beyond the big cities. As we gravitate back to our workspaces post-lockdown and the gaze becomes averted by the trending news headlines of the day. I cannot help but wonder. What can the gatekeepers of our industry can do to bring about real change?

A Future of Change?

British hairdressing attracts a huge number of young people. In December 2018 over half its employees were aged 16-34. This means that we possibly have more power than most to affect positive change and if we do not, it is clear that digital culture may well to hold us to account. COVID-19 has allowed us to press pause and revaluate but it will also leave us with a very fragile economy. With this in mind, we should be reaching out to one another to build a sustainable sector because like fashion we flourish when culture and difference fuse to create something new. Therefore, Salon owners, industry bodies, media platforms and outlets can actively seek to become more diverse employers. Training establishments can review the skills of their staff to ensure that the courses they are offering meet the current and future needs of a constantly changing marketplace.

Awarding bodies can work in collaboration with a fully representational range of industry experts and practitioners to ensure that qualifications and training standards include all hair types. Finally, and perhaps most importantly; the doors of communication have been flung wide open and we can all benefit from maintaining a dialogue.

You can find June at @jforbes_hair

Lead Image via Shutterstock

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