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The "black hair thing" rears its ugly head again — in Alabama

One of my favorite all-time offensive ads. This one implies that the woman got the job because her hair was chemically straightened — she also probably paid more to have her hair styled than a white woman with kinky hair if she went to Dillard’s in Tuscaloosa, AL.

House Blender Kimberley passed on a howler on one of my soapbox issues, the whole “black hair” is somehow inferior, hard-to-deal-with hair, thus justifying discriminatory practices. This gets extra special attention because this ludicrous news of “hair discrimination” comes out of Alabama, Katie’s home state.

An Alabama woman is seeking class-action status for a lawsuit against a Dillard’s Inc. hair salon for allegedly charging black women more than white women. Debbie Deavers Sturvisant alleges that a hair salon in a Tuscaloosa, Ala., Dillard’s department store charged $35 to wash and set her hair, while white women paid $20 for the same service.

Sturvisant’s lawsuit could bring a whole new level of attention to the general practice across the country of charging differently for hair care based on ethnicity.

Officials in Arizona, California, Florida, Maryland and Massachusetts have already addressed race- and sex-based pricing differences at hair salons. “The stereotype is that all black hair is the same. But that’s erroneous, just as all hair for Caucasians is not the same,” said Patrick C. Cooper, a Birmingham, Ala., lawyer who plans to represent thousands of affected customers. Sturvisant’s lawsuit was filed in February.

Cooper said the department store’s “policy completely ignores hair length, which should be the real determining factor in how much they charge. Pricing ought to be based on reality, not stereotypes, and Dillard’s needs to stop what they’re doing.”

But Little Rock-based Dillard’s says that’s an oversimplification that distorts its policy. “Dillard’s does not charge different prices based upon the race of the customer,” the company said in a statement. “Prices for salon services are based upon the level of experience of the stylist, degree of service, amount of time required and the cost of materials provided to the customer.”

Tom McArthur, an instructor and manager of ABC Barber College in Hot Springs, Ark., said different charges based on race and sex are typical. Training manuals routinely note major differences between “black hair” and other ethnic groups’ hair, he said. Also, he said, additional skills must be taught to cut the coarse, tightly curled hair commonly called “black hair.” “It’s a whole new way of cutting. Not everyone can do it. I cut both and I do it pretty fast, but I grew up in this business,” McArthur said. The more a stylist has to do with the hair, the more the customer can be charged. McArthur said that explains why women are generally charged about twice as much as men.

Still, civil-rights law expert Robert Belton said Dillard’s could be in trouble if the pricing is determined solely on race, and not on other factors, like amount or style of hair. “If they’re saying that because of a person’s color that it takes more time, then it’s obvious that it’s race,” said Belton, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School.

I can see charging differently because of some kind of degree of difficulty in services, but this case involves washing hair. Washing hair is just what it is, lathering up and rinsing. WTF does that have to do with hair texture (other than you may use different shampoos/conditioners based on what’s best for the hair — again, nothing to do with race)?

More on the whole black hair thing in prior House Blend posts, The politics of hair (again): school bans white girl with braids, and The effects of slavery permeate our society to this day

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding