I’ve been mulling a thought over in my head about Black-owned business for a little while now. Last week, I read this great piece by Morgan Jerkins about what happens when natural hair care lines go mainstream. The article made me inexplicably sad. Not angry–just bereft, in a way. I want to use this space to explain why. And I’ll start with a premise that I only half believe:
Black-owned businesses don’t owe us anything.
The natural hair care landscape was sparse when I went natural in 2006. Black girls all across the internet started concocting their own product mixtures because A) the beauty industry didn’t see it for natural hair yet, B) we realized we could do it ourselves, and C) it was fun. And do it, we did. In the process, some mixtresses became entrepreneurs. The natural hair community rallied around these businesses, supported them as they expanded, and welcomed each new venture. We were proud of them because we grew with them.
Black girls made the mainstream beauty industry take notice and begin to cater to us. We stopped buying their relaxers, so they gave us the curl cremes we wanted. Yaay, more product choices! More of our favorite small beauty brands in our favorite stores (hey Target, heeey!) Some of the OG natural hair entrepreneurs found an opportunity in selling their businesses (in part or in whole) to bigger companies. A lot of us were salty and swore off the products.
And I get it. As a Black woman consumer who remembers when only Carol’s Daughter existed for Black, nappy, natural hair? Who remembers the pride I felt when their store opened in Lenox Mall in Atlanta? I told my husband at their opening event, “This was the first natural hair brand I ever used. Now look at them!” Even years after realizing their products didn’t suit my hair, seeing Carol’s Daughter sold to L’Oréal was bittersweet. Now the brand has gone full-fledged “multicultural,” as if Black hair is monocultural and does not contain multitudes. It felt like Carol’s Daughter no longer belonged to “us.”
But did it ever?
As a Black consumer, it’s hard not to feel pride in a beloved Black company’s growth. I would never go so far as to say customers “make” a company’s success. Yet, without Black women buying Carol’s Daughter and SheaMoisture, would they have had the same success? Did those companies focus on Black hair because their products fulfilled a need the entrepreneurs intimately connected with? That’s what their stories told us. I still believe that.
Part of the conflict for me comes from understanding that a business is hard to start, build, grow, and sustain. At the beginning, no one but the owner, really, is in the kitchen whipping work. I belong to a Facebook group of mostly Black women entrepreneurs, where owners and creatives talk about everything from sourcing wholesale items to shipping struggles. Customers don’t have to worry about the logistical nightmare that can be inventory. So much goes into building a recognizable brand and product that people actually feel good about supporting.
It’s easy as a consumer to pat yourself on the back for ordering something. Black business owners are grateful for that, absolutely. However, I think supporters get it a little twisted when we start to consider ourselves as doing Black businesses a favor. We don’t shoulder any of the burden of a business. So how much of its success really belongs to “us?”
What do I expect from a Black-owned business?
A Black business owner I know once challenged my assertion that Black business should be “better” to Black folks than other businesses. He felt that it’s essentially buying into racism to never expect a Black business to charge a high price, or occasionally fail at customer service, or act in its own financial best interest. I agree that tying bad experiences to the owner’s race is essentially racist.
As far as whether Black businesses should treat “us” better? I struggle with that, too. In a sense, I expect a Black business not to be anti-Black in its dealings. I expect to feel more affirmed as a Black woman when I’m dealing with Black-owned and operated establishments. Those expectations might come from fictive kinship, but I recognize they still exist. So, to that end, I feel hurt when I see Black brands de-emphasizing the spectrum of Black women in favor of “multiculturalism.” I ask myself why brands cannot consider Blackness multicultural. We contain multitudes, do we not? Not enough, apparently.
It’s not the concept of “selling out” that offends me. The offense lies in the abandonment of product formulas and imagery that catered to Black consumers, in favor of a Whiter/wider audience.
White brands have no problem positioning their products as “for everyone” without including “everyone” in the marketing. Black brands don’t have that luxury because they get pigeonholed as only Black products. From jump, they’re fighting for space in industries that make it a point to exclude them. So if White brands aren’t checking for us, and Black brands eventually leave us for greener pastures, Black consumers end up shafted. Again.
And finally, what do we owe them, if they owe us nothing?
I think the obvious answer is… nothing. It doesn’t feel right, though. What do we hashtag #SupportBlackBusiness for if the businesses we help uplift feel no loyalty to Black consumers? What do we owe a Black-owned business that sees a Whiter audience as the prize? Far be it from me to begrudge an entrepreneur his or her success. But no one wants to feel expendable. Black consumers deserve to be as valued as the White gold many Black businesses see as the promised land.
For me, the truth is somewhere closer in the middle. Black-owned businesses “owe” us the same thing we give them, in equal measure: Black love. And if we can’t give that to each other, then maybe the White man’s ice really is colder.