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Tennessee Beauty School Teaches Importance Of Working With Black Hair


A Nashville hairstylist is pushing the salon industry to address racism that disregards Black culture and Black clients. From Nashville Public Radio, Ambriehl Crutchfield reports.

AMBRIEHL CRUTCHFIELD, BYLINE: When Amber Curry started learning at Nashville's Aveda Institute, she saw Black folks weren't being welcomed like white clients.

AMBER CURRY: No one was really being a hairstylist, you know, taking their craft seriously and being prepared for every person to sit in their chair.

CRUTCHFIELD: Well, now as a former Aveda Institute teacher, Curry wants to address that discomfort with her program, Black Beauty School.

CURRY: So we turn the blow-dryer on...


CURRY: ...High heat, high fan. And I'm going to run the blow-dryer down the hair.

CRUTCHFIELD: It's a six-hour class in which 25 attendees learn practical skills to make their salons more inclusive. Stylists who have little experience doing Black hair get hands-on about what products and techniques are needed to do natural hair styles, like a twist out, Bantu knots or a wash-and-go.

Employers and school administrators have used hair to discriminate. That has triggered civil rights lawsuits and pushed some cities like Cincinnati and states like California to create legislation protecting Black women's crowns. The military has had its problems, too.

CURRY: Specifically, how many cornrows they can have, how big they are, the partings, how big the bun can be.

CRUTCHFIELD: But things are changing on this. In May, the U.S. Army further relaxed some of their grooming standards to prevent hair loss and to allow people to express their cultural and gender identity. For centuries, Black women have embraced the versatility of their hair. Cicely Tyson, Lil' Kim, Michelle Obama and Chloe and Halle have created new standards for self-expression. That impacts Black women and international beauty culture. Throughout the United States, beauticians have called out beauty schools for not fully preparing students to service Black clients.

CURRY: And I like to let them hear that squeak. Like, hey, that's what you should hear when you clarify 'cause that means, yeah.

CRUTCHFIELD: So that leaves white stylists like Brooke Julian struggling over the basics, like wash and care.

BROOKE JULIAN: And I know that this seems like a dumb little thing, but, like, I had no idea that we were, like, supposed to get the hair clean enough to squeak.

CRUTCHFIELD: Julian and other stylists also got to hear Black hair models share the ways race and privilege have unraveled in the salon chair. Jazmin Ellis talked about her traumatizing experience getting a green hair dye and pixie cut.

JAZMIN ELLIS: By the time I left the salon, my hair was at least green, but it was split, crunchy, not that soft, light kind of feeling that you get when you go to a salon.

CRUTCHFIELD: Ellis was stunned that no stylist consulted her or offered alternatives that would have protected her hair. In America, beauty isn't just a fun way to switch up your look. It's been about power, too. Tiffany Gill is a history professor at Rutgers University. She says one of the ways white Europeans justified enslaving African people was because of their physical features.

TIFFANY GILL: Even today, when we think about standards of beauty, it much has to do with hierarchies of power and access.

CRUTCHFIELD: Black people have always leaned into that power, whether it's supporting businesses like Madam C.J. Walker's - she's the first Black woman millionaire who made a fortune off catering her homemade line of hair care products to Black women - or today, when Black people continue to embrace beauty standards that include their natural hair. Stylist Amber Curry says the Black Beauty School isn't about white guilt.

CURRY: I want for Black folks to be able to enjoy self-care but also to go out and to walk into any salon and to know that they are going to be treated equally.

CRUTCHFIELD: She wants stylists to have the skills to pamper Black clients. The Black Beauty School recently finished sessions in Portland, Ore. For NPR, I'm Ambriehl Crutchfield in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARMIST'S "CARPARK SHOWDOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ambriehl Crutchfield