The Right To Their Roots, Literally

Photo by Kareem Thompson.

Three hours into her eight-hour shift, the hotel hostess was called into her manager’s office. The complaint? Her hair.

Rahel Brhane, 27, who worked for a large-scale, 4-star hotel had never before questioned the appropriateness of her hair choices, but the day she decided to come into work wearing braids was a wakeup call.

Her manager had called Brhane in to relay a message from the general manager that braids were not how the hotel wanted staff to look. She would spend the rest of her shift, “walking around for five hours super uncomfortable in [her] own skin.”

“How can you say my hair doesn’t look proper? This is what God gave me,” said a frustrated Brhane, recalling the incident.

Now living in New York as a full-time influencer, Brhane was happy to hear about new New York City guidelines that protect other men and women of color from incidents like the one Brhane experienced.

The law passed in February gives New Yorkers the right to “maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities. For Black people, this includes the right to maintain natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state,” as stated by the NYC Commission on Human Rights. Simply put, black people cannot be discriminated against (i.e. getting fired or a penalty) in the workplace based on how they wear their hair.

The New York City guidelines hit home for Brhane, who calls it a “step in the right direction.”

Known as @curlyrahel online, Brane is a natural hair aficionado, capitalizing on the natural hair movement by self-branding on Instagram. She decided to take on her influencer career full time just two months ago through brand partnerships. Her content includes fashion, beauty and of course, hair.

“I want to inspire. I want to reach people, women, black women who relate to me and who struggle maybe with their curly hair or their dark spots on their skin,” said Brhane.

Before she decided to work full time as an influencer, she was making $3,000 a month doing it part-time. With over 40,000 followers, Brhane’s page took off about a year ago after moving from Germany to Toronto to her current city, New York. She credits New York’s huge social influencers’ landscape for her growth, citing connections with other influencers as the main ingredient to her self-run, self-brand business.

The main ingredient, however, for the growing field of curly-hair influencers (or natural hair influencers) is the market for hair care for women of color, and the vast number of black women  embracing their natural hair and shifting cultural goal posts in the process. The New York law, therefore, which gives black women more freedom in the workplace, creates a greater space for this movement to grow.

What black female influencers have done on social media is flip the narrative of what hair needs to be, and what black female consumers are taking in. In fact, black people spent $473 million of the $4.2 billion dollar hair industry in 2017, according to a report by Nielsen in 2018. In the same report, Nielsen found that black consumers made up 85. to 65 percent of what is spent on ethnic hair and beauty aids. With influencers opening up the conversation on natural hair, and consumers clearly buying it, hair care companies are having to expand their market. Take Pantene, for example, which launched its first curly hair product line, Pantene’s Gold Series, targeting black women in 2017 after almost 80 years of business.

In a press release issued with the new product line, parent company Procter & Gamble admitted, “there is still a level of inequality in how African American hair is represented in popular culture and in mainstream hair care advertising. Mass brands, like Pantene, have inadvertently been a part of this pervasive hair bias with a history of advertising showcasing a limited representation of African American hair styles and textures and promoting long, shiny, smooth hair as the pinnacle of hair health and beauty. Pantene has set out to change this perception and empower all women to embrace their strong and unique hair, because all strong hair is beautiful hair.”

By removing the bias, Pantene expanded its target audience.

“We are the target group. You have to listen to us,” said Brhane.

Recognizing the target group and the growing market for natural hair led the formation of the Curly Girl Collective, organizing a natural beauty festival for women of color in New York called CURLFEST.

Charisse Higgins, co-founder of the Curly Girl Collective, called the new law a “happy time,” where she and her fellow natural hair enthusiasts are on the “winning side.”

“It’s something that Curly Girl Collective has recognized for a very long time about the importance of promoting women of color and their beauty and promoting confidence within themselves,” said Higgins. The importance of providing space for women of color to embrace their natural beauty in the mainstream is “not necessarily the norm. It’s not something that we have seen growing up or even our mothers or our grandmothers or their mother or their grandmothers.”

New York City by adapting the new guidelines has recognized the disservice it is to women of color to face discrimination based on hairstyle in the workplace, she says. “I hope more cities follow suit,” she added.

Until that happens, Higgins along with the four other founders of the Curly Girl Collective are trying to keep building their New York CURLFEST. The festival brought 35,000 people to Prospect Park in July 2018, after beginning with just over 1,000 in 2014. Essentially, the event brings together those looking for tips and tricks for their natural hair, and, with presence from brands like HBO, Dove and Shea Moisture, as well as plenty of curly haired influencers.

Courtney Danielle, a 20-year-old influencer, was a featured guest last year with beauty brand Hue Noir at CURLFEST 2018. She began her page @curlsandcouture after deciding to return to her natural texture in 2012 out of curiosity. She had been getting relaxers since the 4th grade.

Now a curly hair Instagram influencer and digital content creator, Danielle began her hair-based following with one YouTube video, where in six minutes she talks about beginning her natural hair journey.

“It really was my intention to make the YouTube video and then get off of YouTube,” said Danielle.

It didn’t happen though; she struck a nerve. The video now has almost 4,000 views. Her goal then, and now, was to prove that there is not one natural hair-girl type.

“I think that the stereotype typically is very Erykah Badu, India. Arie, Mother Earth. You have to wear wood and African print and it’s very neutral. Even though that’s not who I am why can’t I wear my natural hair? It’s my hair,” said Danielle. “I’m going to prove to you that I can wear my natural hair and I will wear my natural hair, and I’ll be very successful at it.”

Danielle’s page has over 92,000 followers and last year she made about $50,000 as a full time influencer from partnerships with major companies in content creation, and endorsements. For 2019, due to collaborations already in line, Danielle is projecting to almost double her profit.

Although she acknowledges that the growth expected from the new New York natural hair guidelines is a positive thing, Danielle says she finds it “very sad that it had to even be made a law.”

“I almost wouldn’t say I’m excited about it, because I don’t feel it should have been a topic of discrimination to begin with,” she explains.

Aside from hair, Danielle’s posts include content about skincare, fashion, makeup and general beauty care.

“As long as my hair is out that gets the most impressions,” said Danielle. “I could be showing off shoes and people will say ‘oh my God! I love your hair!”