Good hair/bad hair: Racial classification, skin color, and hairstyle norms among Afro-Caribbean Latinos
Gerald F. Murray
Department of Anthropology (emeritus)
University of Florida
“Race”, racial mixture, racial classification
Racial classification in the Spanish Caribbean
The racially unique Dominican Republic
“Pelo bueno / pelo malo” – “good” vs “bad”
The Dominican hair salon
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
The Spanish Caribbean
Special demography of D.R.
Shares an island with Haiti.
Has the highest Afro-Caucasian mixture in the
Not only is skin brown, hair is also mixed.
Puerto Rico 4%
Dominican Rep. 73%
Classifying the species: “Human races”. A fiction.
Skin color as a fictitious boundary setter.
“African blood”, “Caucasian blood”.
(A, B, AB, O blood groups).
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
Example of mixture of coke and milk.
North American bipartite racial system
Caribbean tripartite system.
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.
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
Skin whitening ceased.
The brown skinned “india” became first acceptable, then
the preferred norm.
Hair straightening became the esthetic norm.
The salon became popularized.
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.
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.
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.
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
Sexual orientation and female monopoly
Two exceptions: foreigners, married owners.
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
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.
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
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.