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By Lurie Daniel-Favors

When Chris Rock’s film Good Hair was released there was a lot of noise made about the fact that most of the people profiting from the massive Black hair industry are not actually Black. It seems everyone is benefitting financially from our collective addiction to hair that we don’t actually grow.

A few weeks ago Mintel, the market research firm reported that over the past five years there was a 26% decline in the sale of hair relaxers.  Natural hair sites all over the place did the hallelujah dance and many in the natural hair community greeted the news with excitement.  The idea that more Black women are beginning to embrace ethnically Black hair (i.e. natural hair) is one that makes many of us happy.

The numbers were truly astounding.

  • Relaxer sales are estimated to drop from $206 million in 2008 to only $152 million this year
  • In the past 12 months, nearly 70% of Black women “say they currently wear or have worn their hair natural”

  • Now, granted I haven’t seen 70% of Black women in my area with naturals (and I suspect part of that decrease is due to the prevalence of hair weaves…), but the numbers are encouraging nonetheless.

    But when I read the report, in addition to getting hyped over the increase in naturals, I was instantly reminded of Civil Rights era bus boycotts. Specifically the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.

    Why? Because just like the Montgomery boycott, for the savvy Black owned hair company, the numbers in that report can mean the difference between financial independence—or not.

    And our decisions as Black consumers may make all the difference.

    History in Context
    For those who don’t remember the details of the bus boycotts, here’s the quick version.

    After slavery, Black passengers were treated like scum third class citizens under legal segregation.  This was especially true when it came to public transportation.  After countless incidents where Black passengers were forced to either give up their seats for White passengers, kicked off of buses all together or subjected to racial violence terrorism, the Black community began to boycott the transportation system and demanded equal treatment.

    The Montgomery Boycott is one of the more famous protests. It lasted over a year and was a tremendous display of Black people really owning their monetary power. Despite the fact that Whites in Montgomery were completely unwilling to provide non-racist equal service to Black bus patrons, they very much wanted the money that Black patrons spent on bus tickets.

    During the boycott, Black taxi drivers stepped up to provide increased services. Black churches across the nation raised money and collected shoes to support the folks who chose to walk to work rather than submit to racist Jim Crow policies. The Black community rallied to keep Black folks mobile—and financially independent—during the boycott.

    However…in the pivotal moments after the boycott’s successful end, the Black community returned to riding buses operated by racist bus company owners.

    But what if instead of giving racist bus owners their transportation dollars going back to business as usual, Black patrons decided to keep their money circulating in their own community? What if during the boycott, the Black community created and maintained its own bus companies, met its own transportation needs and circulated those dollars within its own borders?

    What if instead of celebrating the fact that racists bus owners could no longer openly discriminate, the Black community rejoiced—and then decided it neither needed nor wanted to spend its money with those companies? What if instead, those boycotters chose to take their hard earned money and give it to Black owned bus companies that respected them and their humanity?

    Natural Hair Dollars and The Power of Choice
    Now, what this have to do with the decrease in relaxers and increase in Black women who are choosing natural hair alternatives?

    It all comes down to choices.

    Because believe it or not, the natural hair community is also at a pivotal moment.  We are literally shifting the commerce of the Black hair economy to one that rejects the idea that one must have straight hair in order to be deemed socially acceptable. And since Black women spend a hell of a lot of money on hair care, that shift is under some intense industry scrutiny.

    You see, natural hair websites were not the only ones reviewing that report.

    You can bet your lace front wig that large commercial hair product companies are keenly aware that they are losing money in the hair relaxer market. Anyone who has watched 5 minutes of BET lately knows that companies like Pantene and L’Oreal are hitting the airwaves hard to promote their new products for “naturals.” They’ve even adopted similar language, using terms like “co-wash,” “curl defining,” and “clarifying” to describe their products.

    It’s not because all of a sudden they changed their mind and decided that nappy/kinky/coily hair is beautiful. It’s because they are losing money to natural hair companies owned and operated by Black women. Companies like Going Natural, Karen’s Body Beautiful, Doris New York and Shea Moisture. And they aren’t going down without a fight.

    So now the natural community must choose how to spend our money and whom we will support with our economic power.

    Will we reward companies that played on our insecurities for decades? Will we support companies who profited by reinforcing a standard of beauty that was designed to exclude Black women and our hair?

    Or will we instead choose to support companies started by Black women for Black women? Will we reward those companies founded by sistas working in their kitchens who took the time to blend safe, natural ingredients in ways designed to promote the beauty and health of Black hair?

    Or will we…not?

    Just like those involved in the bus boycotts we have demonstrated our monetary potential.  We’ve shown that “going natural” isn’t just a trend and it is here to stay. Now we have to decide if we will throw our economic might behind those businesses in our own community who believe in the beauty inherent in who we are—or if we will continue in a (bad) tradition of supporting those outside our community who have shown little loyalty to our needs.

    Lurie is an attorney and the author of “Afro State of Mind: Memories of a Nappy Headed Black Girl. You can find her on Twitter,Facebook and YouTube.