About seven years ago, Deta and Nancy Wilms, from Wentworth, adopted 7-year-old Tavari. During their first phone conversation – long before the adoption was finalized – Tavari, who is black, had two pressing questions for her expectant mothers.
“One of his first questions was, what color are you?” said Deta, who, along with his wife, is white. “And then she said, ‘Can you take care of my hair?’ And I said, ‘of course.’
Tavari, now 15, said her memory of that moment was hazy because she was so young. But she figures that while she was in foster care, the families she was placed with knew how to take care of her mane, and she wanted to make sure Deta could too.
“I don’t really know why I would ask that,” Tavari said. “I guess I was just making sure I always had someone taking care of my hair the way I liked it.”
Initially, things went well. The couple had developed a Sunday hair care routine involving brushing and various oils. But, as Tavari got older, the texture of her hair became coarser and harder to work with.
Then two things happened. Deta was diagnosed with cancer and began chemotherapy treatments which left her exhausted, often leaving her unable to get up to complete the Sunday hair routine.
Then, on a trip to Syracuse, New York, to visit members of Tavari’s biological family, she visited a hair salon specializing in natural hair. That’s when Deta learned that she might need a little more help with natural hair care than she initially thought.
“I sat in the chair and they were looking at my hair and they kept saying how horribly neat it was,” Tavari said. “I heard someone say maybe you should love, shave and then let it grow because it was so bad.”
While that didn’t happen, that’s when the Wilms realized they needed to find a more lasting solution closer to home.
The complexity of natural hair
Natural hair tends to be rougher and coarser than other hair types and has tighter curls, according to natural hair care expert Shaquwan’Da Allen.
“Natural hair is hair that hasn’t been treated with any chemicals,” Allen said, noting that it eschews chemical processes and cutting to focus on dreadlocks, braids, blow-drying and more. hair care and styling methods. “It’s for textured hair.”
Commonly associated with women of color – although there are also white populations in this category – natural hair is more likely to dry out and become weaker than smoother textured hair. According to Allen, this prompted the community to create protective hairstyles that did not require the use of outside chemicals.
“You have to have protective styles because you can’t just leave it out,” she said. “So over the years we’ve learned to braid our hair, dry our hair, weave it, put fake hair on our hair just so we don’t have to deal with our curls every day and wear them out and let it dry.
Yet, for a long time, options for natural hair were hard to come by. Laws in New Hampshire — and other states — required cosmetology licenses to open formal natural hair stores. To obtain a license, people had to complete either a 3,000-hour apprenticeship over two years or 1,500 hours of what the Institute for Justice calls “irrelevant cosmetology training.”
Allen said when it comes to natural hair, she agrees with that assessment.
“A lot of cosmetology schools don’t really touch base beyond that certain texture,” she said. “A lot of times a lot of stylists don’t know how to work with curls so you have to look for someone who’s specialized in that and nine times out of 10 it’s a natural hair salon because we keep our curls looking good. and tight.
Yet for a very long time, the barriers to entering the formal economy were excessively high, prompting many people – especially women of color – to offer informal services from their homes. While it served a purpose and provided extra income for many, it hurt in two ways. First, the state has been unable to tax bribe income. Second, service providers have not been able to expand their customer base effectively and efficiently for fear of being sanctioned by regulatory authorities.
At first glance, the demand for natural hair care may seem slim in the Granite State, where more than 93% of the population is white. Still, hair care was an issue for many families, like the Wilms.
In 2017, the passage of HB 82 made New Hampshire the 23rd state to remove licensing requirements for natural hair care providers. Since then, at least six stores – two in Manchester plus one in Concord, Nashua, Lebanon and Londonderry – have started operations.
One of the first was Allen’s Rootz Natural Hair Shop, where Deta and Tavari began a monthly stint.
Even with a close option for hair care, it was necessary for the Wilms to learn how to work with Tavari’s hair. Allen facilitated this process.
“I was really comfortable meeting Shaquwan’Da,” Deta said of their first visit to Rootz. “And what was good was the teaching point… Shaquwan’Da would explain why we brush, why we do it this way, etc.”
Deta said the explanations provided by Allen helped her better understand her daughter’s hair needs, a difficulty in the past simply due to her own lived experience.
“I’ve never been able to dry my hair blonde because it breaks,” she said. “I see my hair is so fine and it’s the complete opposite [of Tavari’s]. It was really helpful to have someone explain not only the how, but also the why.
Indeed, the education was useful not only for them, but also for Allen. She said when Tavari first became a client, she spent up to eight hours on her hair.
“Now it doesn’t take that long,” Allen said. “They have to take care of the hair together. Now Deta knows the schedule and Tavy now knows how to oil her hair. They don’t just wait for it to knot up and dry out.
These days, Tavari mostly deals with her hair. But according to Allen, there are many other families like the Wilms. She plans to start a separate business venture focused on teaching mixed-race families how to care for natural hair.
“That’s the plan because I’m starting to see the pattern and the same questions,” Allen said. “The need and the desire are so high.”
This article is shared by a partner at The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our Race and Equity Project. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.