UF Researcher: Beauty More Than Skin Deep In Black Community
GAINESVILLE — Hairdos and pedicures of working-class black women have resulted in new findings for social researchers who are more inclined to focus on welfare woes or middle-class affluence, a new University of Florida study finds.
In a 16-month study of behavior at a black beauty shop, UF researcher Kimberly Battle-Walters found a political and social refuge for working people that may be as important to black solidarity as the well-recognized African-American churches and funeral parlors.
“Social scientists, when they do look at the black community, tend to emphasize low-income neighborhoods, or, less often, the middle class,” said Joe Feagin, a UF sociologist and expert on racial relations who supervised the research. “Most whites don’t have a clue that most African-Americans are not low-income welfare recipients or part of the underclass and the majority aren’t middle class either. They’re just hardworking, working-class people.”
Battle-Walters, who did the research for her doctoral dissertation in sociology, spent 12 to 15 hours a month observing and interviewing women in a north Central Florida beauty shop from November 1995 to March 1997.
“People often ask if the beauty shop resembles the atmosphere portrayed in the movie Steel Magnolias,’ where women gossip and share their secrets with friends,” Battle-Walters said. “The same camaraderie is there. For at least two hours, these women found refuge and support without cares or concerns of their families, jobs or social problems.”
Learning about these women’s lives reveals a broader network that is helping to unify the black community, said Feagin, adding that the study breaks new ground in describing the critical role of the beauty shop.
“The beauty shop is where important social networks are created, friendships are built
and information is passed along,” he said. “It is much more than a place to have one’s hair done. In a sense, it is a haven in a heartless world.”
Battle-Walters said she chose the beauty shop for her setting because it contains a wealth of information about what it is like to be a working-class black woman today. Beauticians are almost perceived as therapists, fixing up women physically as well as emotionally, and women share personal details of their lives with them, she said.
“We’re almost like counselors,” agreed Kenneth Bolen, owner of Ebona Magic, a Gainesville beauty salon with a black clientele. “Often they’ll talk about their marriages and I as a male will try to curve them to stay in their marriage if they possibly can.”
But Bolen said his beauty shop is a focal point for black women to chat about a wide range of topics, including religion, politics and racism.
Battle-Walters found the challenges in overcoming stereotypes to be a frequent topic of discussion. “Most of the stereotypes that the women had to dispel came from the media, which categorize black women as Aunt Jemimas, sexual toys or welfare queens,” she said.
Among the everyday problems the women described were being followed in department stores by clerks who suspected them of shoplifting and having to face harsher treatment than white women on the job, Battle-Walters said.
“Automatically, (store clerks) will come and walk up to you, and I know a lot of times it’s because I’m a black person,” one woman told Battle-Walters.
“White women are always treated like they are fragile, like a china doll,” complained another woman. “But a black woman is expected to be like a horse. You got to keep going no matter what.”
These women said they had to work hard for the sake of their families to compensate for what they believed was even greater discrimination faced by black men, Battle-Walters said. In that sense, they felt they had to be strong for the sake of their race, gender and social class, she said. They drew that strength from family, female friends, and — even more important than the black church — their belief in God.
But the beauty salon remained their haven. “For a short time,” she said, “somebody else was doing the pampering and taking care of them.”
- Cathy Keen