There are some aisles of the pharmacy where you probably don’t need to spend much time: Dental hygiene, sunscreen, deodorant. You know exactly what you want, so it’s easy to grab and go.
Hair care is not one of those aisles. You might want to check a conditioner’s ingredients, read more about its promise to boost volume. Black women, especially, need to consider their options, says Rae Ferguson, a 28-year-old black woman who lives in Baltimore: With so many different textures and styles, she says, it’s “a bit of a crapshoot.” Most black women she knows have had to try out seven or eight products before landing on one that worked.
In many stores, black women aren’t permitted to take their time. Products that fall into the vexingly nonspecific category of “multicultural hair” are often locked up behind a plastic barrier, or restricted in some other way. Black and brown customers have to call an attendant to request the products they’d like to buy. Meanwhile, further down the aisle, white customers are free to select anything they’d like. Some stores have similar policies for makeup: foundation shades geared toward women of color are locked up, while ones for white skin tones are not.
“Other women, predominantly white women, get to stand in the aisle for five to 10 minutes, reading the bottles, deciding which one they want,” said Ferguson. “But I have to decide really quickly, because the sales associate is standing right there.”
CVS and Walmart announced last week that their stores will no longer lock up beauty products for “communities of color,” adding to the chorus of companies that have pledged to change business practices in the wake of sustained protests following the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25. Many are promising to promote products from black-owned businesses, as others move to change long-standing discriminatory policies. The announcements from CVS and Walmart came just a few days after a photo of the plastic barriers went viral on Twitter, shared almost 200,000 times.
Some customers are skeptical of these sudden shifts in corporate policy. While it’s great that these restrictions are ending, Ferguson says, the timing of the announcements — and the media publicity surrounding them — strikes her as awfully convenient. Black customers have been pointing out the racist nature of these policies for years, she says. But it took a global movement for company leaders to finally do something about it.
“Do they want a pat on the back for regular human decency?” she says. “I’m honestly asking.”
Now that a few major corporations have promised to stop locking up beauty products for black women, many are asking why they did it in the first place.
“Is it because there is a lower stock quantity?” said Chelsey Turner, 27, who is black and lives in Washington, D.C. “Is it because you think black people are trying to steal these products?”
“What is it?”
The companies have not provided much clarity.
“We have a firm-nondiscrimination policy that applies to all aspects of our business and our product protection measures have never been based on the race or ethnicity of our customers,” CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis wrote in a statement to The Lily. “After reviewing the security measures we have in place for many different products and categories, we are taking steps in our stores to ensure that no hair or beauty products for communities of color are kept in locked displays or shelving units.”
When asked why CVS locked up products geared toward women of color — if the policy was not based on race — DeAngelis did not respond. Walmart and Target, which also locks up these products in some of its stores, did not respond to requests for comment.
Joy Hearn, 38, still remembers the day she saw the plastic barriers for the first time. It was about two years ago, says Hearn, who is black. She was shopping at her local Walmart in East Lancaster, Calif.
“I asked one of the managers. ‘Maybe I am internalizing this too deeply but why is it that only the products for people of color are locked up?’”
The manager told her that this was the “new protocol,” she says. He explained that Walmart was instituting additional theft protections — and these products were stolen more than others.
“I don’t make the rules,” Hearn remembers him saying.
When she shops for hair products, Hearn says, she often feels hyper self-conscious. As the white women pick up “their Suave, their Herbal Essences, their Pantene,” she says, she wonders if they are watching her, noticing that her products have been segregated from theirs.
Hearn has sometimes wondered whether she is “overreacting.” She has gone home and asked her husband: “Am I reading too much into this?” The policy seemed to clearly discriminate against black and brown people, Hearn says. But when the manager so quickly dismissed her questions, it was hard to be sure.
“I would be curious to see what these companies say to explain why they do this,” said Adia Wingfield, an associate dean and professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. But in the absence of straight answers, she says, it’s easy to guess at their motives.
“Only black hair products are those that need to be protected from potential thieves,” she said. “The message there is not hard to decipher.”
Before the policy change, black beauty products were only locked up at some CVS and Walmart locations. There seemed to be more restrictions at locations in affluent, mostly white areas with relatively few black people, said Turner and Ferguson. Browsing hair products at a Target in a gentrified part of Baltimore, Ferguson says, “it feels almost like [white people] are afraid of you.” (When asked to comment on the demographics of the locations where products were behind barriers, Walmart and CVS did not respond. Target also did not respond about locations where products are currently restricted.)
“It makes you question, do [these companies] think all black people are raised in a way that they’re going to steal?” said Turner.
Growing up, Ferguson said, she assumed black hair care products were locked up because they were more expensive. It wasn’t until she got older that she realized this wasn’t the case: While some hair products for black women are sold at a higher price point, the same is true for white hair products. Even the comparatively inexpensive creams and serums for black women are restricted at some locations, she said.
When products for black customers are locked up, while comparably priced products for white customers are not, Wingfield says, kids in that community will take notice.
“There is an expectation that you are going to do something wrong,” she says. A message is sent to white kids, too. “It reinforces a message of black criminality — that black people are people who are othered.”
The policies also perpetuate the idea that there is something “fundamentally wrong” with black women’s bodies, said Wingfield. Especially in professional settings like law firms and banks, black women’s physicality is already policed, a concept discussed at length in “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer” by Tsedale Melaku. Black women are regularly told they can’t wear their hair in braids or cornrows. Sometimes they are instructed to have their hair chemically straightened, said Wingfield.
“They are told, who you are is not okay here. It doesn’t meet our ideas of who belongs in this space,” she said. When you can’t even buy hair care products without excessive surveillance, she said, it reinforces the idea that your body does not fit in.
The policy changes from CVS and Walmart are insufficient, says Ferguson. She’d like to see these companies speak more honestly about the “ignorance” and “racism” of the restrictions. Brands like CVS and Walmart should also be bringing more black women to the decision-making table, she said. Ferguson won’t ever know whether there was a black woman in the room when they initially discussed putting hair products for black women behind a barrier, she says. But she seriously doubts it.
As soon as Hearn heard about Walmart’s new policy, she drove to her local store. While the products are no longer behind a plastic barrier, she said, most are now positioned behind the cashier. She couldn’t touch the bottles and take her time reading the labels. She still had to ask an employee for help.
“In that moment I really felt that someone was trying to play me, like they thought I wasn’t smart enough to see what they were doing,” said Hearn.
Without buying anything, she walked out of the store.