The following observations were made in a Black hair salon in Ottawa. The name of the salon, the owner and the visitors’ identities will not be revealed to preserve confidentiality. The following site was chosen because it is located very close to downtown Ottawa, and because it is surrounded by diverse commercial establishments owned by business people of different ethnicities (i.e. Irish, Somali, Thai and Lebanese). In the following essays, I present two different ethnographic accounts. The first one takes a descriptive approach in the form narrative analysis. It gives an account of the daily life of a Black hairdresser working in a Black hair salon, and pays special attention to the facial expressions and the emotions felt. I took an analytical approach in the second essay, in an attempt to achieve “thick description” of this particular context.
The life of a Black hairdresser
On a Friday evening in the cold month of November, a Haitian hairdresser is putting sets of rollers in her client’s hair. An elderly Rwandese lady, who arrived forty minutes late, is impatiently waiting for her turn. She picks up a magazine with a light-skinned model advertising “Dark and lovely” relaxers. Flipping through the pages, she occasionally looks up and checks on the progress of the hairdresser. “Ten more rollers left,” says the hairdresser. The Rwandese lady smirks and her eyes drop back down to her magazine. She cannot really protest because this is the “politics” of a black hair salon: those who come late, wait, and those who come on time, still wait.
This is normal. It is not like the hairdresser loves working under these conditions. Sometimes she has to wait a full hour before her clients arrive, which later interferes with her picking up her son on time. It’s not like the pay is good, either. Matter of fact, she has to split her earnings with the owner from whom she rents her styling chair. So, on most days she is left with a meager pay, a new list of potential clients and a throbbing foot ache. To compensate, the hairdresser to sell some products on the side. All the profit goes to the hairdresser.
This Friday, the hairdresser is very busy. She is styling three heads that evening at the same time. Her youngest client, a ten-year-old girl who just had an excruciating experience with chemical relaxer, is now sitting under the hair dryer. The roller set client is waiting for her texturizer to break the protein in her hair so that it can give it the jerry curl effect. Finally, the Rwandese lady is getting her hair washed and styled. While all this goes on, the women in the hair salon have been discussing their social lives. The conversations ranges from religion to their thoughts on American politics and assimilation of children in a Canadian environment. There are some instances where the conversation gets heated. For example, they argue about the sanctity of Christmas. The Catholics in the room defend the holiday, while the protestants argue that the holiday is a commercial guise, and that Jesus was never born on that day. The back-and-forth goes on until they get interrupted by an odd man. The man in question looks a bit disheveled. He is wearing black top and baggy pants. He greets everyone at once and asks the owner if she wanted a good deal on Jumbo shrimps. The owner and the hairdresser knew him. “How much?” He states the amount and the owner exclaims “Ah, Ah…” as she shakes her head slightly. After few seconds of debating, the two settle on a price. Then, he opens his bag and introduces three bags of Jumbo shrimps. He offers it to the ladies, and leaves the store with the money earned from the sale. The two ladies who did not buy the shrimp smile at each other, while the three other ladies feel happy about their purchase.
It is now 7 pm and the hairdresser have spent twelve hours at work. Her feet are hurting. She spends hours on her feet forcing her to wear sandals and socks. She comes to work even when she doesn’t have appointments some days. She is very dedicated to her work. In addition to her dedication at work, she is a devoted Christian. She goes to church with her husband every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. However, her long work schedule constrains her. It does not provide her room to arrive home on time. She complains to her clients how she is going to be late again and how her husband has to pick up the children. Sometimes, he also cooks. By the tone of her voice, she is bothered by that. Her client nods in understanding while the hairdresser places the last curl. One of the ladies compliments the hairdresser on her work and tells her that she will refer her to her friends. Reacting positively to the compliments, the hairdresser smiles. Another day at work and another happy client.
The Informality of a Black hair salon
From my experience and observations , I know that black women spend a lot of hours and resources in creating unique hair styles varying from African-American hairstyles (i.e. Jerry Curl), European hairstyles (i.e. chignon) , African hairstyles (i.e. braids) and plenty more. In order to achieve these looks, they must go to specialized black hair salons. At first, I assumed that the time spent in these hair salons serves mainly aesthetic and cultural purposes. However, that is not the case. For many Black women, hair salons are also a site of communal bonding, as well as public spaces where they can relax in a more informal setting.
For example, the hair salon I observed the dress code for the employees and the owner at the salon was informal. Unlike other salons where the dress code demands a uniform, this establishment did not put such pressure on the occupants. The hairdresser wore her regular clothes with bright pink flip flops and black wool socks. This attire was actually a solution to pain associated with standing for long hours of work. Furthermore, clients were more concerned about the set of skills that the hairdresser has and her likability.
During the evening, the “Shrimp” man made an appearance. A man came into the salon. He looked aloof and he wore dark baggy pants with black top and a backpack. He greeted everyone at once and asked the owner if she wanted a good deal on Jumbo shrimp. The owner and the hairdresser seemed to recognize him, since they were the first to ask, “ How much?” They negotiated the price, for themselves and other clients who were interested in the shrimp. Then, the man proceeded to open his bag and took out three bags of Jumbo shrimp. He offered it to the ladies and left the store with the money gained from the odd sale. Some women knew that the shrimp was stolen goods from the nearest supermarket. Nonetheless, they were content with their purchase and did not ask questions.
There was an unspoken understanding between the hairdresser and her clients. This understanding implied that her client can call, set a date and time for the hair appointment, but is not in any form obligated to arrive at the scheduled time. This behaviour has become normal, primarily because the hairdresser and the clients have decided that it is normal. Thus, most of her clients arrived extremely late. In most instances, the hairdresser took another client before/during her scheduled appointment. These actions did not create conflict between clients and hairdressers. The clients arrived late, took a seat and sparked a conversation with someone in the salon. The conversation ranged from religion to their thoughts on American politics and assimilation of children in a Canadian environment. When someone made a comment, it could either cause an argument or moment of bonding by. These moments would not exist if it wasn’t for the informal ambience of black hair salons.
When writing ethnographies, anthropologists take special care to avoid one-sidedness, prejudice, partial information and false data. However, ethnographic description is always written from a particular place and leave some things out—therefore it is a partial and not a complete truth. Throughout this semester, we have learned that writing from a subjective perspective is not always bad because it gives the reader a unique angle into understanding a situation. We have also learned that most ethnographers make decisions which data to include: sometimes this process can be difficult because not all information is equally important. Therefore, one must develop a skill in picking the most interesting data. Then, the author must make decisions regarding the style and form of writing that will engage his audience. Thus, the target audience must be chosen before the writing process start. Finally the ethnographer goes through a long process of writing and rewriting while keeping in mind their audience. She or he sometimes faces dilemmas on how to portray some of their subjects; to tell the whole truth or half of it. Can their work potentially hurt or benefit the target group? These questions are often contemplated by ethnographers. Hence, it is safe to say that writing ethnography is not an easy task but it does provide rich knowledge when it is done properly.