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Good hair/bad hair: Racial classification, skin color, and hairstyle norms among Afro-Caribbean Latinos

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Part of a full day workshop at Bethune-Cookman University "Afro-Latino Adaptations:Images from the Caribbean and Brazil"

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Good hair/bad hair: Racial classification, skin color, and hairstyle norms among Afro-Caribbean Latinos

  1. 1. Gerald F. Murray Department of Anthropology (emeritus) University of Florida
  2. 2.  “Race”, racial mixture, racial classification  Racial classification in the Spanish Caribbean  The racially unique Dominican Republic  “Pelo bueno / pelo malo” – “good” vs “bad” hair  The Dominican hair salon
  3. 3.  Evolutionary background of hair.  Evolving functions of hair  Hair as an expression of beauty.  Core theme: decline of skin color, rise of hair style, as criterion of beauty  Methodology: focus groups and data on 100 salones.
  4. 4.  Demographic replacement  The Spanish Caribbean  Special demography of D.R.  Shares an island with Haiti.  Has the highest Afro-Caucasian mixture in the world.  Not only is skin brown, hair is also mixed.
  5. 5.  Puerto Rico 4%  Haiti 5%  Barbados 6%  Jamaica 6%  Cuba 24%  Brazil 39%  Dominican Rep. 73%
  6. 6.  Classifying the species: “Human races”. A fiction.  Skin color as a fictitious boundary setter.  “African blood”, “Caucasian blood”.  (A, B, AB, O blood groups).  Scientifically precise.  Doesn’t correlate with skin color or with continents.  Practical use: blood transfusions.  Racial differences within the same society.  Arbitrary and culture-specific nature of racial classification  Example of mixture of coke and milk.  North American bipartite racial system  Caribbean tripartite system.
  7. 7.  Lacio -- “straight”  Ondulado - “wavy”  Rizado – “curled”  Crespo - “heavily coiled or curled”
  8. 8.  3 skin colors. But good/bad dichotomy of hair.  Types 1 and 2 of the preceding chart are “good”  Types 3 and 4 of the preceding chart are “bad”  The purpose of the salon: make “bad” hair look “good”.  But the hair is still “bad”.  “Bad hair” cuts across skin color groups.
  9. 9.  Formerly only wealthy went to salons. Hair was treated at home.  There was a concern with whitening skin. Perlina and other chemicals were used.  In the 1970’s onward two cultural shifts occurred  The “rule of skin” yielded esthetically to the “rule of hair”.  Skin whitening ceased.  The brown skinned “india” became first acceptable, then the preferred norm.  Hair straightening became the esthetic norm.  The salon became popularized.
  10. 10.  Every visit: lavado y secado.  Two phase drying for more difficult hair.  Use of round brush and blow dryer, perhaps with a “concentrating nozzle”. Goal is to get it bone straight.  (The “paddle brush” is not generally used,.  Occasionally: straightening “unrelaxed hair”  Possible differences with U.S. Black community:  No real menu of alternative styles. Can have different lengths and diff colors. But the norm of straightened hair is strong.  Frequency of visits: the ideal is twice a week. Poorer sectors go once a week.  There are some women who never wash their hair at home. 
  11. 11.  A major microenterprise in the Dominican Republic.  Prices are cheap, adjusted to the economic level of the salon.  Prices of a simple washing and blow drying.  Poorer sector: 100 pesos = $2.50  Middle sector: 250 pesos = $6  Elite sector: 500 pesos = $12  Additional expenses: straightening, dying, tipping.  “El dinero del salón” is a normal monthly budget ítem  Monthly expenses for the salón.  Poorer sector: 800 pesos = $20  Middle sector : 1400 pesos = $35  Elite sector: 3600 pesos = $90.  No appointments; first come first serve.  Can wait several hours on weekends.
  12. 12.  FM: 55,000 salones in the D.R.  Total pop = 10 mill. Total hh. = 2 mill  Gainesville: pop. 130,000, #hh. 32,000  # salones in Yellow pages: = 145  Gainesville has 1 salon for every 221 hh.  D.R has 1 salon for every 35 hh.  More than six times the density per capita.  D.R. may have the world record.  There may be 150,000 women employed.
  13. 13.  A female population: owners, employees, and customers are almost all women.  A more lucrative and honorable alternative to other female occupations:  Domestic work as a cook, laundress, or nanny  Free trade zone and other factory work  Small business  Sex work  Sexual orientation and female monopoly protection.  Two exceptions: foreigners, married owners. 
  14. 14.  A weekly refuge for women from domestic tasks  A place where women can get together with no male presence.  Chatting, eating, drinking, joking.  “Therapeutic” bonding with a stylist  Female employment
  15. 15.  Increasing fame of the Dominican stylist.  Dominican women trust only Dominican stylists.  Many with tourist visas come and go. Many local clients.  The “Dominican salon” is becoming known to African Americans.  The “Dominican hairdresser” now competes with the Dominican baseball player in terms of national image.
  16. 16.  Racial issues.  Why is there a Black / White dichotomy in US and a Black / Brown/White system in Carib.?  Good Hair / Bad Hair issue.  Is the phrase heard in the US?  Is the phrase racist?  Some say that Dominican women who straighten their hair “trying to be white”. Do you agree
  17. 17.  Are African Americans frequenting Dominicans?  Compare the hair care of the two populations:  Esthetic norms and pressure.  Frequency of visits to the salon.  Usual purpose of visit to the salon.  Cost of the average visit.

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