In 2008 I moved to Namibia, a country in southwestern Africa, to do field research for my dissertation. As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, I was studying education in post-colonial Africa. Most people had never heard of Namibia until 2006 when Angelina Jolie gave birth to her daughter Shiloh there on May 27, which just happens to be my birthday. Shiloh was born in the seaside town of Swakopmund, which is about a three- to four-hour drive from Windhoek, the capital of Namibia and the city where I lived for almost a year. It had been 18 years since the 30-year war between South Africa and Namibia had ended, and with it apartheid. During that era, people in Namibia were divided into three categories: Whites (people of German or Afrikaner descent), Coloreds (mixed-race people) and Blacks (including at least five different ethnic groups). Whites had access to the best education and employment opportunities, which allowed them to accumulate wealth. No surprise there. Coloreds fared better than Blacks when it came to education and jobs, but they were caught in the middle of an unfair system. Blacks had few options in terms of economic mobility, held the least desirable and lowest-paying jobs, and were not free to move about their own country without a special pass. Because of these policies, many Colored Namibians banded together during apartheid to create a strong culture of their own—one of which they are still proud today. But I wouldn’t have seen a White woman, a Colored woman and a Black woman in the same salon before 1990. It just wouldn’t have happened. In fact, it may have even been illegal.
My landlady, an Ovambo woman—an ethnic group that makes up about half of the Black population—told me that women spent at least 30 to 40 percent of their income on their hair each month. No matter what their social standing, hair was important to these women. My landlady spent hours at her local beauty salon, which was more of a shack really, getting braids and extensions, changing her look as often as I’d change my clothes. She took pride in her hair and looking her best. I met a taxi driver in Windhoek who told me that even women in poorer neighborhoods in the city spent a lot of money on their hair. Beauty was important, he said, because it’s what gave women power—the power to attract a man who could provide for them. A little sexist? Yes. But this belief was common among many male Namibians. I’m sure my landlady had other reasons for her visits to the salon. When it finally occurred to me that I needed to see a hairdresser as well—the extremely dry air during the winter months had wreaked havoc on my fine, wavy locks—I took a cab to Independence Avenue, the “main drag” in Windhoek. Before Namibia’s independence, the avenue was named Kaiserstrasse, a nod to the country’s German colonial past, which was later replaced by South African Afrikaner culture and its restrictive segregation policies. Yet here I was waiting for a haircut on in a newly integrated salon. And while my reasons for wanting a haircut may have been simple, my experience in the chair was not.
I was escorted back to the shampoo area. With a smile, a Colored woman asked me to lean my head back into the bowl. I closed my eyes and relaxed into the chair. As she was running her fingers through my hair, it struck me that at that moment we were just two women, not a White woman or a Colored woman. Just women. Her hands were the same as mine, although a different color. Her history was different from mine, but in that moment we spoke one language—the language of human touch. When I sat up, I took a moment to look around the salon. A Black woman was having her hair braided. Another White woman, possibly a foreigner like myself, was getting highlights. None of this would have been possible during apartheid, just as it would not have been possible in the Deep South during segregation. We’ve come a long way in the United States since then, though some would argue that we haven’t come far enough. Jane Carter, owner of Jane Carter Solutions, notes that there are still three businesses in the U.S. that remain segregated: churches, funeral homes and beauty salons, and it has been her mission to get hairdressers to realize that hair has nothing to do with skin color. Unfortunately, beauty schools have not kept pace with the changing demographic in this country, which not only includes African-American and Hispanic women, but also people of mixed race. In fact, in 2010, the U.S. Census added “mixed race” as a category, yet most cosmetology students spend very little time in school practicing their art on non-white customers, especially if the school is in a predominantly white neighborhood. Though we may still have a way to go before the beauty industry is fully “color blind,” here’s what I learned from my experience in a post-apartheid Namibian salon: It’s important to find the commonality among people, especially now when the media would have us believe that our differences are what define us. What gives me hope is that through your art, beauty professionals like you have have the power to make a difference, one client at a time.