Not much seems unusual about Judian Brown and Kadeian Brown’s storefront in a tidy plaza off Church Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where every block seems to have its own African hair-braiding salon.
Posters of African-American women with long, sleek hair fill the window. Round jars of shea butter belly up to slender boxes of hair dye on the shelves. Wigs perch on mannequin heads.
What makes Black Girls Divine Beauty Supply and Salon’s visitors do a double-take is the skin color of the proprietors. “I go, ‘Look at all the faces on the boxes,’ ” said Judian Brown, recalling other shopkeepers’ and customers’ surprise when they realize she is not an employee, but the owner. “Who should be owning these stores?”
The Brown sisters’ is one small shop in a multibillion-dollar industry, centered on something that is both a point of pride and a political flash point for black women: their hair. But the Browns are among only a few hundred black owners of the roughly 10,000 stores that sell hair products like relaxers, curl creams, wigs and hair weaves to black women, not just in New York but across the country. The vast majority have Korean-American owners, a phenomenon dating back to the 1970s that has stoked tensions between black consumers and Korean businesspeople over what some black people see as one ethnic group profiting from, yet shutting out, another.
A growing awareness of this imbalance has spurred more black people to hang out their own shingles. The people producing the products have changed, too: As “going natural” — abandoning artificially smoothed hair in favor of naturally textured curls and braids — has become more popular and the Internet has expanded, black entrepreneurs, most of them women, are claiming a bigger share of the shelves in women’s medicine cabinets.
“We’re aware of where our dollars are going, we’re aware of the power of our dollars, we’re aware of the cultural significance of the way that we choose to wear our hair,” said Patrice Grell Yursik, the founder of Afrobella, a popular natural-hair blog. “There’s been a lot of taking back the power, and a lot of that is from the Internet.”