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Why the ‘ethnic’ aisle is merging with the ‘beauty’ one

The new normal in hair care.

The business model at African American hair salons is changing as styles shift from chemically treated to natural. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)

SheaMoisture hair products launched the second phase of its national #BreakTheWalls campaign recently with 60-second commercials challenging what it sees as the beauty industry’s outmoded labeling practices. The spots feature a dazzling array of women of all shades, with every imaginable hair texture, color and style asking the singular question, “What is normal?” Or en Español: “Soy normal?”  The implication is that in today’s multiracial United States, kinky, curly, wavy and nappy hair textures — rather than straight ones — are the new “normal.”

The spots follow the campaign’s debut in April, which featured a brown-skinned woman staring with trepidation at gleaming rows of products in a drugstore aisle. “There is a section called ethnic. And there is an aisle called beauty,” one of several narrators says. “Do I feel like I’m beautiful? Is ‘ethnic’ not beautiful? … How can I break down those walls?”

Fans responding to the first ad on YouTube described it as “powerful,” “beautiful” and “groundbreaking.” Many expressed their gratitude to Shea simply for acknowledging black female consumers, and for affirming their natural hair-care needs with their chemical-free products. But others took issue with the premise, viewing it as a cynical play for white dollars.

This “has nothing to do with empowering women of color,” MsBgood83 wrote. “They simply used black women to make their company pop and now they are moving on to ‘others.’ ” “This is them saying they dont want to be the “black hair care company,” DAsiaW wrote. “Stop drinking the kool-aid guys.”

What the ads — and the reaction to them — speak to, though, is bigger than just hair care. The campaign is forcing Shea and its customers to think carefully about black ownership and expansion. What belongs to whom and who gets to take it away? It’s understandable that black and brown people are quick to call foul whenever their latest dance move, musical innovation, slang — or in this case, hair product — is suddenly seen as being for “everyone.” “Can’t we just have this one thing?” we seem to plead. (As the enraged reaction to Marc Jacobs’s recent multicolored, dreadlocked, mostly white female models on the catwalk demonstrates.)

And Shea’s push to broaden its reach has had other awkward moments.

In February 2015, the company posted several Twitter ads featuring white and Asian babies and children — a move that prompted black-oriented blogs such as MadameNoire to take them to task for a marketing shift they called “jarring.”

As a kid, I was biracial. Today, I’m black.

Last September, the company again faced backlash after announcing its new “strategic partnership” with Bain Capital Private Equity, a firm founded by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Sundial’s reassurances that it would remain “majority family-owned and operated” weren’t enough to escape accusations of “selling out” and abandoning black consumers.

Again and again, black consumers reference the fate of other black-owned hair-care companies such as Soft Sheen, founded in 1964 by Edward and Bettiann Gardner, who sold homemade products from their basement on the South Side of Chicago. Soft Sheen was purchased by L’Oreal in 1998, which two years later merged it with the Savannah, Ga.-based Carson family company, a white-owned leader in black hair products, to form SoftSheen-Carson.

The average Shea consumer is no doubt also keenly aware of the 2014 L’Oreal purchase of Carol’s Daughter, a black-owned company with early investments from rapper Jay Z that markets itself as Brooklyn #BornAndMade. It, too, has been viewed with suspicion by readers of MadameNoire both when it attempted to diversify its advertising with “racially ambiguous models” rather than darker-skinned black women (a lesson Kanye West might have heeded before issuing his recent inflammatory casting call for “multiracial models” only), and after the announcement of the sale.

But this time the complaints feel just a bit off-base.

The skepticism among some black consumers is complicated by the fact that Sundial Brands, the company behind SheaMoisture, is actually owned by Africans, with products manufactured in Ghana. Can it really be white appropriation when it’s black people defining the terms of the giveaway? And it’s not at all clear that white women are the primary target of their expansion.

Instead, it seems to me that the #BreakTheWalls strategy is far more complicated, in a good way; in a way that other forward-thinking companies might emulate.

Sundial chief executive Richelau Dennis talks often of growth and expansion into a “general market.” If black businesses don’t grow, he told MadameNoire, “they die on the vine.” But what he means by the “general market” isn’t necessarily what the word used to mean: It’s no longer code for “white.”

Instead, the campaign is tapping into a submarket that, until recent years, has received little focused attention: multiracials, a population growing at a rate three times faster than the general population. #BreakTheWalls is actually a small stroke of genius in that sense. It’s no accident that both ads feature strategically placed white women, as well as light-skinned Latinas, some of them mothers with brown-skinned children.

When I asked Dennis about the biracial children in the new ads, he explained that for him, they are the new “general” market. “My mother is biracial. My grandfather was white, in a village in Sierra Leone in the 1940s,” he said. “Just because you see someone physically doesn’t necessarily mean you know who they are. That’s not where the world is headed.”

The company’s target audience — young, and increasingly assertive about their complex racial and ethnic heritages — is part of a powerful new contingent of natural hair-care bloggers and vloggers (“naturalistas”) who’ve made it their mission to offer styling tips, advice and encouragement to women both celebrating, and at times wrestling with, their decision not to chemically straighten their hair. As Dennis put it to me, the naturalistas of today are “younger, larger, louder, more educated, and more affluent” than customers of a generation ago.

And now, he’s got their attention.


Liberian-born Dennis and Nyema Tubman, Sundial’s co-founders, came to this country in 1987 to attend Babson College, a private business school in Wellesley, Mass. Prevented from returning home after the outbreak of Liberia’s second civil war in 1999, the roommates partnered with Dennis’s mother, Mary Dennis, to create their company using recipes passed down from Richelau Dennis’s grandmother Sofi Tucker, a natural healer who first sold soaps and salves in the village market of Bonthe, Sierra Leone, in 1912.

The partners mixed and packaged their products in a two-bedroom apartment on 168th Street in Jamaica, Queens, a space they shared with 10 other people, and peddled their shampoos and styling products on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. After incorporating in 1992, Sundial moved to a manufacturing and distribution warehouse in Amityville, N.Y., where it remains today.

The company employs several thousand workers in its northern and southern cooperatives in Ghana, Dennis told me, where he said the highest quality of shea butter is found. Dennis said the firm reinvests 10 percent of all revenue back into those local businesses — funding piping for water so that young girls can go to school, and constructing warehouses so that workers can sell at full price, year-round.

He’s painfully aware of the “selling out” question. When I asked him about that criticism, he acknowledged the trepidation among some consumers and said he understood it. They’re saying, “‘We’ve seen that happen before, and we don’t want it to happen again,’” he said. “So our job is to reassure. To stand up a little more and speak to those who are concerned.”

“What is normal? Soy normal?” Shea asks.

Despite the ad’s sunny optimism as it envisions a multi-textured, rainbow world, the answer to that question remains highly contested in the here and now. It’s just hair, some might say. But in fact, natural black and brown hair is never that simple. Despite Shea’s best efforts to challenge “normal,” its tenacious roots remain thickly locked. In the drugstore aisle, and beyond.