WHY DIVERSITY IS NOT ENOUGH IN THE PROFESSIONAL BEAUTY INDUSTRY

On Halloween, 2008, I was transferred from my role at the head office of Bumble and bumble to take on a sales territory in Eastern Canada. Upon waking up the next morning, I forced myself out the door through a large snowstorm for one reason: to find a barber in my new country. I was the most valuable customer back then – an every two-week lineup kinda guy. I visited four shops in a row, and each time I heard the same thing: we don’t do YOUR type of hair- one person even said “you people” before correcting himself. It is a dehumanizing feeling to be turned away as if I was an alien with hair never seen before.

Now, imagine selling products for years that could not even meet the needs of your very own hair, or having to sell those same products to clients; of not seeing yourself in marketing materials and brand campaigns, or feeling overlooked for advancement, or be seen as someone whose unique life experiences has value and agency.

​This is my 15-year journey of working in the professional beauty industry, where I worked for direct brands (Bumble and bumble), Canadian distributors (Collega, Toronto Barber), and organizations (Green Circle Salons, ABA Canada), as well as managing a barbershop. Too often, I was the only person of colour in the room. Note, I didn’t say the only black person, I said the only person of colour in the room. Again, it was hard not to feel like I was an alien; the one that did not belong, isolated and alone.

I love the industry so much, I even married my ex-wife inside a salon in Oakville, Ontario. The industry has been infused with my DNA – 10-volume flowing through my veins. I am humbled by the artistry that I see every single day – and yet, it is an industry that fails to truly understand the potential of “seeing beauty in colour.”

​I could tell you about individual instances where I felt ostracized or isolated, under-utilized or ignored, but I don’t want to focus on the past – since the calls for justice ramped up with the death of George Floyd and Breona Taylor, people of colour have been telling stories about their struggles in the professional beauty industry and calling out racism and calling for equity.

Many people, often well-meaning white folks and even people of color, don’t understand the difference between the two. Let’s point to a recent example Destroy the Hairdresser, a really cool (at least to me) independent salon coaching company. A few weeks ago they posted an image of two beautiful black women recognizing the need for stylists to be able to service all hair types. It is an important issue and one that should be addressed.

This is diversity.

A few people then took to their social feeds to point out the lack of salon coaches of color on their platform and that this feels like pandering and hypocrisy during Black History Month.

This is equity.

Destroy the Hairdresser is caught in the crossfire here, but most brands fall into this same trap. Marginalized communities (inclusive of BIPOC, queer, and even women) are not accepting these token tributes anymore. Diversity is a feel-good phrase that recognizes the differences in people. It’s the equivalent of saying “I’m not racist: I have black friends.” Equity is about creating equal access for everyone, regardless of race, class, etc. Equity holds brands accountable for not only the posts they make, but the businesses they operate, and the people behind the scenes.

I think it’s now time to focus on the potential of the future. And know this: I do not believe that the people of the professional beauty industry are inherently racist. In fact, I think quite the opposite. I have found kindred spirits in the industry; misfits, outcasts, and weirdos, just like me, who would rather create than conform. Beauty professionals are inspired to live in a magical world of colour, instead of hiding in the greys of corporate life. I have grown incredibly jealous and inspired every single day.

​Yet, there is still a big problem. When looking at the leadership of the industry, we see that it is almost exclusively a collection of old, white men. Think about the brands you carry in your shops or the distributors you work with, or even the sales reps that annoy you, how many of them are non-white. Now remember the last time you went to an education event (which, thanks to Covid, feels like sometime around the ice age): how long in the event before you saw a person of colour on the stage. How many brands have people of colour in leadership in any form, especially at the heads of sales, education, and marketing. People of colour (including indigenous people) represent roughly 15% of the population in Canada. Just by sheer population, the numbers should be significantly higher. Of course, we have to get in line behind women, who make up the majority of beauty professionals, yet still are rarely seen in brand leadership and platform artistry.

​This is the incredible opportunity, in dollar figures, that is the professional beauty industry is mostly missing out on: $2.5 billion dollars. That is how much money the black beauty industry is worth. In North America, there is a shadow industry hiding in plain sight – hundreds of thousands of beauty professionals buying products and education from outside the industry – not to mention the millions of BIPOC people who are hoping for salons to see them – much in the way I was hoping for salons to see me when I first moved to Canada looking for a haircut. These men and women of colour are incredibly valuable as they often visit more, purchase more retail products. By making a shift to go, the professional beauty industry can be seen as more inclusive and equitable, both in its offerings, as well as in the people that shine its brightest lights.

​I now believe that my whole career has been leading to this moment, to help the professional beauty industry become more equitable, and I look forward to announcing a new initiative very soon that will do just that.

Stay tuned – and stay in the fight!!!

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RALPH BRYANT is writer and content creator living in Canada. He is the author of Shackles Lost and the host of the podcast Black Fathers Matter.

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Ralph Bryant Writer

RALPH BRYANT is writer and content creator living in Canada. He is the author of Shackles Lost and the host of the podcast Black Fathers Matter.