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Mini-Ethnographic Study: African-American Women’s Hair Salon

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Mini-Ethnographic Study: African-American women’s hair salon
The present study aims to provide an ethnographic description of the population of an African-American women’s hair salon located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The study was carried out through a 3-hour field interaction that occurred in the afternoon of May 22, 2013. The field observation comprised the following techniques: picture, drawing, spontaneous conversation, interview and note-taking. The first part of the study introduces the environment where the interaction took place and the population studied. The second part presents the observation itself and a detailed description of the population’s cultural traits. And finally, the third part of the study summarizes the key findings of the observation under a socioeconomic perspective.
The subject of this study is the African-American women’s hair salon Foxy Diva’s, located in Germantown. I chose this subject of study for three main reasons. First, I currently live in Germantown and I wished to get a better understanding of the neighborhood and its population. Second, I wanted to learn more about the socioeconomic environment of the African-American population. And finally, making a parallel with Brazil, I expected hair salons in American poor neighborhoods to be relevant social spaces and, consequently, to be interesting environments for an ethnographic observation.
Germantown is a neighborhood located in the northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia and approximately 8 miles far from center Philadelphia. The neighborhood was founded in the 17th century by German settlers and was a stage for remarkable events in the independence of United States. Later, in the 1950’s Germantown received several waves of African and Central-American black immigrants and saw its white population fleeing for more privileged neighborhoods. Today, the population of Germantown has the following composition: 77.2% black, 15.2% white, 3.2% Hispanic and 1.5% Asian. Presently, Germantown is mostly famous for its high crime and poverty rates.
The Foxy Diva’s hair salon, from now on referred to as “salon”, is located in the commercial epicenter of the neighborhood, at the edge of Germantown and Chelten avenues. As a consequence, there is an intense movement of cars and pedestrians on the streets and in commercial establishments nearby. The salon is a rectangular room, divided in three parts: reception, main room and back room. The three parts are divided by partitions that are used to deposit diverse objects such as notebooks, handbags, hairdressing products and tools. The reception, equipped with a television and an old sofa, is a waiting area. The main room accommodates 8 professionals chairs aligned in 2 rows, each of these chairs positioned in front of a mirror and a counter. Most of the hairdressing services are delivered in the main room. The latter has also a hi-fi playing rap to entertain the population. The back room contains equipment for special hairdressings and a closed deposit. Besides having a diversified portfolio of hair services, the salon also sells handbags as an additional source of revenue.
The population studies is comprised of 10 individuals, whose brief description is presented in the following table:
Name Activity Description
Nicy Owner, hairdresser Female, black, overweight, 40 years old
Trumane Wait, entertainment Male, mixed-race, 29 years old, Nicy’s boyfriend
Sharita Wait, entertainment Female, black, 25 years old, Nicy’s cousin
Shawn Wait, entertainment Male, mixed-race, 5 years old, Sharita’s nephew
Debora Hairdresser Female, black, overweight, 27 years old
Ky Hairdresser Female, black, apparently 23 years old
Don Cleaner Male, black, apparently 60 years old
C1 Customer Female, black, overweight, apparently 45 years old
C2 Customer Female, black, overweight, apparently 30 years old
C3 Customer Female, black, overweight, apparently 35 years old
Note: the notions of color and overweight come from my observation and, thus, translates my references of weight and color.
The boundaries that define this population can be classified in three main groups: social, geographic and linguistic. The social boundary comprehends ethnicity, income levels, relationship structures and appearance. As described in the table above, all the individuals of the population are members of African-Americans ethnicities. Moreover, my perception of their activities, family relationships and appearance made me conclude that their income levels are relatively comparable. The geographic boundary is justified by the fact that all members of the population live and work in the vicinity of the salon and, most importantly, attended the salon during my visit. And finally, the linguistic boundary is represented by a very clear spoken and body language.
My first impression in this environment was that it had its own life. I entered the main door, passed through the reception and penetrated in the main room without speaking to anybody. There, I looked to people in order to identify the manager or an attendant to whom ask for permission to execute my observation. Although I stood in the middle of the population, I waited for a reasonable time before Nicy, the salon’s manager, disengaged from a conversation and turned her attention to me. In a short conversation, she demonstrated skepticism but ended up authorizing me to do my job in her establishment. I then sat in the reception’s sofa in order get my first vision of the surrounding environment.
Sitting there I met Sharita and Shawn. Sharita is a young thin black girl and Shaw is a 5 years old mixed-race boy. Right after facing Nicy’s skepticism, I had a hard time to engage in an interaction with Sharita. She seemed very embarrassed and showed signals of displeasure such as moving and looking away in the first few seconds. She also sharply asked me about the purpose of my study. But as I insisted and explained that my study had an academic purpose only she felt more comfortable and agreed to speak. Sharita spoke about the neighborhood, about her job in a snicker’s shop and even about her family background. She lives with her sister close by, while her mother lives in New Jersey and her father lives in Philadelphia. In the beginning she introduced herself as a customer but later she mentioned her family ties with Nicy. I then asked Sharita to draw “something she likes in her neighborhood”. After an initial refusal, she accepted when I said that I wouldn’t have any importance and that I wouldn’t observe her while drawing.
At that moment, the little boy Shawn entered the salon and approached Sharita. Shawn is a mixed-race smiley little boy. When he approached I said “hi” to him and he spoke to me gently and curiously. I played with him for a while, asking simple questions about an infant’s toys and activities. He saw my phone and readily identified the model. I gave him my phone to play and he accepted. After a few seconds I asked him to draw the one thing that he likes most and he readily agreed: a car.
Playing with this little boy was a triggering moment in my interaction with the other members of the population. From my perspective, it was a key moment because Shawn’s behavior was completely different from Sharita’s toward my presence there. A child’s acceptance of my presence made me conclude that there is a certain type of racial segregation in that population. From the other member’s perspective, my playing with the little Shawn demonstrated that I did not represent any harm. I observed that when a man came to me curious about what was drawing. After that, Nicy crossed the reception while smiling and said to Sharita that she was speaking with a Brazilian. This transition from skepticism to curiosity made me feel much more comfortable. While Sharita and Shawn were drawing I went to the main room where I saw 7 people.
Trumane was the mixed-race tattooed man who asked me about my drawing. He was standing next to a chair where Nicy was working on a customer’s haircut. Another customer was sitting on a chair on the opposite row waiting. Debora and Ky, two hairdressers, were also waiting and chatting. Apart from the cleaner Don, who was sitting bored in the middle of the group, everybody was interacting in a unique conversation dominated by Trumane. In the back room, a third customer had some special product on her hair and waited for the next process to be done by Debora.
This room was pretty picturesque for many aspects. First of all, I did not recognize who was who. I observed the different personages for a while before identifying the two hairdressers Ky and Debora. The only professional that could be clearly identified was Nicy because she was wearing a black vest. I presumed Ky and Debora were hairdressers because they did not seem to be waiting for service, but instead, for customers. Ky was completely idle and although Debora was delivering a service to a customer in the back room, she went in and out of the shop several times in the waiting periods. It was not before I spoke to Don that I learned that he was the cleaner. He seemed really bored and refused my interaction. After a short moment of conversation, he promptly stood up and left the salon. Don’s leaving did not affect the group interaction, which continued passionate. Don did not come back.
Observing the group conversation I noticed that they have their special language, with idioms and a strong accent. Their specific language compounded with the radio made their conversation incomprehensive to me most of the time. However, I noticed that when I interacted with group members that were accepting to my presence, they adapted their expressions and pace to a more comprehensive language that would facilitate the interaction. Their movements were also remarkable. The music played an important role as many of them left their bodies move according to the ongoing rhythm.
I also observed certain patterns related to work, time and organization. Although the main room seemed pretty disorganized and dirty to my standards, smelling lightly bad in some parts of the room, most people seemed to be having fun instead of working. My conclusion of that observation is that at least one of the following hypothesis is true: 1- their organization and cleanliness standards are much lower than mine or 2- there is not a clear organizational structure with definite functions and goals for the employees. Clearly, people do not seem to care about being idle at work as most of the individuals waiting or cheating while only Nicy worked.
Another important characteristic of this population was their appearance. If still nonexistent, I would surely coin a term to describe their style. Shoes, shorts, pants, shirts, blouses, almost every piece of cloth was highly colored and most of them had Afrocentric patterns. Also, male’s bodies tended to be thin while women’s tended to be overweight. And obviously, everybody in the room had a stylish hairstyle. Men’s haircuts were short and discrete while women’s styles ranged from short and curly to Brazilian blowouts. And finally, women’s hair tended to be faded. Certainly, there is a clear notion of beauty in the studied population and the hair salon is an important institution in that field.
The last remarkable point in my observation appeared in my interaction with Trumane. I approached him after my unfortunate conversation with Don. Trumane was very charismatic and would answer any questions in a certain funny way that would attract people’s attention. I asked him to draw beauty and he drew a beautiful woman. After a while, he delivered his drawing and explained to me that beautiful women must have long hair and big boobs. After that, took the initiative and gave me a few advices:
- “Roberto, you must understand something very important in this country. If you like a girls you must have at least one of these three things: a car, money or a big dick. They don’t care about having a profession or having a career. Women in this country look for that.”
- “Another important point for you to stay away from any danger in the neighborhood is to mind your business. Got it? Just mind your business and you fine!”
Trumane also surprised in many situations when he approached Nicy and touched her lovingly, kissing her in some cases. Trumane tried hard to concentrate people’s attention and display affection to Nicy in front of the group. After one of these situations he came to me and said that he was very happy after having met Nicy because she does well to him. He said that he currently works for free as a school teaching assistant and that he expects to have a regular job next year. After that, he said that in order to make money in the United States one need to work hard:
- “Unless you do anything illegal, the work load here is really high. People do illegal stuff, but it’s not worth it”.
Observing Trumane’s behavior I confirmed my initial impression of some sort of racial stigmatism and understood how important relationships for that in that community. And ultimately, his advice about women also makes sense with the little Shawn’s drawing of a car.
Key Findings:
A socioeconomic analysis of the studied culture produces three main findings. The first key finding relates to the value of the studied community in relation to the American society. It is important to highlight that the relative notion of value is valid from both an insider as well as from an outsider perspective. An example of an outsider perspective might be how these communities are seen by other American communities. Conversely, an example of an insider perspective might be how community members see themselves as part of a bigger American society. Indeed, both visions significantly impact self-esteem of the community members. In the case of the Germantown community a blatant perception of stigmatization - probably due to some sort of racial or social segregation – came out of the of the several interactions that took place during my observation. Certainly, this very important characteristic affects the way community members interact with other individuals, businesses and government. As a consequence, any stakeholder willing to develop activities in this community must pay a special attention to such a significant factor. Some questions that can help organizations understand this aspect are: “How can business governments and other players legitimate themselves in stigmatized communities? In this context, how can they help build self-esteem?”
The second most important takeaway has to do with the relevance of relationships for community members. As described in the study, four out of the ten members of this community are connected through family ties. And although the remaining members were linked through job and customer relations, most of them considered one another friends. Clearly, the magnitude of relationships in their lifestyles highlights the necessity of business and public policies to take this variable into account and make use of it in order to leverage their activities. The main question to be answered in this field is “How can business and governments make the most of it when navigating in a relationship-oriented community?”
And finally, the last important point has to do with their definition of beauty. As my observation advanced and I identified patterns in clothing, body and hairstyles, a convergent African-American look became obvious. Again, understanding this notion of beauty is a matter of crucial importance for organizations aiming to successfully reach these communities. The two major questions help provide a major understanding on this aspect: “How important is beauty in this community; and what does it mean to look beautiful in Germantown?”

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