“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South . . . I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
-Madam Walker, 1912
A pioneer in the Black hair care industry, Madam C. J. Walker worked her way out of poverty and on to become the first woman millionaire in the 19th century. The self-made entrepreneur founded her own business and began selling her products door to door. At the time of her death, Madam Walker’s estate had an estimated value of $600,000 to $700,000 (now equivalent to over $6 million).
In the years after Walker’s successes, Black-owned hair care businesses flourished. Today, Koreans, as well as international big names like L’Oreal Paris (manufacturer of products such as Soft Sheen Carson and Dark & Lovely), dominate the Black hair care industry.
Although Black women make up less than 10% of the U.S. population, they buy 70% of the wigs and extensions purchased in this country. And the vast majority of these dollars do not go back into our communities, or to support our Black businesses. Instead, billions of dollars in revenue is pumped out of our pockets and into the bank accounts of other ethnic groups that, in return, blacklist Black-owned businesses. Koreans control an estimated 80% of the retail and wholesale distribution of Black hair care products, especially professional products that are sold in beauty supply stores only.
In 2006, filmmaker Aron Ranen explored this phenomenon in the documentary, “Black Hair.” He found that one of the ways these merchants ensure the domination of the market is by publishing publications for Black beauty storeowners solely in Korean. Another method is by creating their own line of products, or buying out existing Black-owned companies. Kizure Products, a Black-owned company that specializes in curling irons, was blacklisted by Koreans and told that their products were no longer in demand, when that was far from the truth. “I don’t see a reversal of this at all. It’s just getting deeper and deeper,” Dr. Edward Tony Lloneau, a hair and scalp specialist, told Ranen.
Perhaps Lloneau is right. Perhaps a reversal is unconceivable. But that doesn’t make this a lost cause. Where did we go wrong since the days of Madam Walker, and where do we go now? Many in the “Black Hair” documentary cited the root of the problem as being the lack of Black unity. It’s common for Koreans to band together to help each other build businesses and then exclusively support one another. Others cite the lack of financial education in the Black community.
Whatever the true cause(s), there is no use in pointing fingers. The most we can do is educate ourselves and spread new knowledge to our sisters, mothers and friends. We can finally realize that there is power in numbers. If we each take tiny steps to support Black-owned brands and businesses, our immense buying power will thwart the efforts of others who seek to eradicate what’s left of Black businesses.
The next time you’re in need of a new bottle of conditioner or moisturizer, visit the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA), an organization that promotes and assists entrepreneurs in their goal of owning and operating Black-owned beauty businesses. They have a national directory of Black-owned beauty supply stores.
If you end up making an impromptu trip to the pharmacy or beauty supply store, or even shop online, purchase products by the handful of Black-owned hair companies that continue to thrive including, Johnson Products, Luster Products, Dudley Products Inc., Namaste Laboratories LLC (manufacturer of Organic Root Stimulator), Clintex Laboratories and Kizure.
I’m not suggesting you boycott Korean-owned stores or stop buying your favorite products. But consider looking beyond the price tag, familiarity, and convenience. This is bigger than us. This is bigger than hair. It’s time we start caring and taking action.
-Audra E. Lord