LEEDS, England – The purring of golden clippers breaks the silence inside the Piranha Hair Studio as Qasim Sajjad gives a lesson on how to cut black hair. Brian Swarry, the studio owner, offers additional instruction via Facetime while a junior hairstylist watches and listens.
It’s a mundane scene, except the junior barber is white.
For years, Mr. Swarry, 48, known as Barber B, has built a reputation in an industry geared towards white clients for teaching interns of all races how to cut black hair. Most certified hairdressers in Great Britain never learn how to do it and have not been forced to.
“Ten years ago we couldn’t go anywhere to learn how to cut afro black hair,” Mr Swarry said, referring to how black Britons describe their hair curly or frizzy.
Today, agencies that set standards for the profession in Britain are reporting a change, even though it is too early to know how significant the change will be or how quickly it will come. In May, after several years of lobbying by advocacy groups and a leading fashion magazine, the Hair and Beauty Industry Authority has said it is updating its certification standards so that hairdressers can meet “the needs of the UK’s diverse community”.
The immediate question was whether every trainee, regardless of race, should now learn how to cut black hair. The answer is still murky, in part because the industry is sprawling and decentralized, with at least six licensing bodies certifying the thousands of stylists produced by training schools each year.
But within the industry, there is a growing recognition that change is coming and long overdue. A certification body, Qualifi, began requiring graduates to be proficient in working with “textured” hair.
Mr. Swarry predicted that expanding training would be a challenge.
“For this to work properly, white stylists are going to have to spend time in a black salon where they have a constant flow of afro hair,” said Mr. Swarry, whose studio is one of the more black hair salons. known. in the north of England, and who was part of an advisory board that consulted on the new standard.
Few commercial places are more personal and intimate than a hair salon. While many black stylists see the shift in standards as deeply significant, others fear the change will present new competition for black hair salons and barbershops, which have painstakingly carved out a niche for themselves over the years. years.
There is no doubt that black communities are underserved in Britain. According to a survey, the country has only 314 afro hair salons on almost 45,000 registered hairdressing and beauty salons. In some cities, just getting an appointment can take weeks. Other salons sometimes turn black clients away, claiming their stylists are not trained to help them.
As Britain now grapples with how to deal with racial inequalities, the black hair style has taken on growing political and cultural resonance, including books, documentaries and advocacy campaigns on the subject. the Collective Halo raised awareness of how dark hair can lead to stigma and discrimination in school and in the workforce. And in 2020, a teenager obtained 8,500 pounds (approximately $ 11,800) as part of an out-of-court settlement after being kicked out of school several times because of her natural hair.
In south-east London, Monique Tomlinson oversees Peckham Palms, an Afro hair and beauty center. Many of the women who work there are self-taught and are now encouraged to expand their skills through formal training.
Pushing the coils back from her twist, Ms Tomlinson said it took too long for society in general to recognize Afro hair as beautiful and worthy of attention.
“I’m not just going to sit down and be thankful for the breadcrumbs you gave me,” Ms Tomlinson said. She attributed the changing attitudes around hair to the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing trend of black culture in Britain.
Carmen Maingot, a black entrepreneur, is said to have opened Britain’s first hair straightening salon in London’s North Kensington district in 1955, when black women in Europe often straightened and styled their hair to meet beauty standards European.
Two years later, Winifred Atwell, a pianist from Trinidad who became the first black artist to reach number one in the UK singles chart, opened a salon in the Brixton district of south London after receiving a sloppy hairstyle.
Zainab Swanzy, author of the forthcoming book “A Quick Ting On: The Black Afro Girl,” said: “Afro hair has almost always been overlooked in traditional British hairstyle.”
She said black immigrants who arrived in the country after World War II – known as the Windrush Generation – “were asked to bring their own tools and products for their Caribbean hair, because once they arrived in the Kingdom – United, not a single hairdresser would be able to help them.
In the 1970s, professional afro hairstyling was a lonely business in Bradford, a town in the north west of England. Calma Ritchie, 55, now has a loyal following in her salon, XL Hair Design, but she started working in her salon or kitchen.
She got her certification very early on, but was only trained on “European” hair. Formal instructions for styling black hair did not exist, so Ms. Ritchie trained with her siblings.
The first time she chemically straightened her brother’s hair, she left it on for too long and her hair fell out. “Just in patches,” she laughed.
She said it was high time to recognize the importance of black hair training: “It’s about time,” she said.
For Nicola Oates, 39, a newly certified white hairstylist from Tamworth, a very different message was given during her training last year. When she suggested that trainees learn to work on black hair, her instructor said she could only bring clients with “normal” hair to practice.
“We should be able to have anyone in our chair, and we should know, or be willing to help them find out, never, never refuse them,” said Ms Oates, who signed a petition last year that pushed for mandatory training on textured hair. To learn, she turned to tutorials from black hair experts on Instagram.
The shortage of qualified hairdressers is also a problem for blacks working in fashion and the media. Emma Dabiri, a TV presenter who is the author of the 2019 bestselling “Hands Off My Hair,” said she often had to do her own hair before recording an appearance.
“When you see the photos or the look, you can see that no one has styled my hair,” she said. “Having some familiarity with afro-textured hair would be an improvement.”
Still, the question remains as to whether black women will generally want to be assisted by stylists whose hair texture differs from theirs.
“If you grew up with a certain texture, you know how to handle it. You know how to style it, ”Ms. Tomlinson said. “There is a lot of work to be done. It’s not as easy as saying “I’m going to learn afro hair”.
There are also concerns that changing training standards could take customers from existing black-owned salons.
“The industry has been nurtured and incubated by black women from the ground up,” said Margot Rodway-Brown, owner of Adornment365, one of the many salons that provide specialist services for natural afro hair in the neighborhood. from Brixton to London, home to one of Britain’s largest. black communities.
“L’Oréal didn’t come to us to say ‘Now you can wear an Afro’,” she said. “Will real access be open to people in our community? If we are now sharing the skills and knowledge that give us a competitive advantage, then what does it do for our market share? “
For 36-year-old Marvina Newton, standardizing textured hair training could be positive if it empowers black-owned salons. “I want to spend on black businesses,” she said. “Let the resources go to black hairstylists who can train white hairstylists to do our hair. “
The preservation of black-owned hair salons is deeply personal to Ms Newton, who shaved her hair chemically slicked back to encourage her daughter to be proud of her own natural hair.
Pointing to a neighbor client with a little Afro blonde in Elite Studio in Armley, Ms Newton said, “My daughter can see this. This leads her to think, “Oh, my hair is beautiful. “
“That’s what we get when we go to black hairdressers,” she said. “See you. “