For this assignment I decided to go to the only place in the Hague I know caters specifically to African people, namely an afro hair and beauty shop. It has been only two weeks since I arrived in the Netherlands and like many African woman when it comes to hair care, I know that I will not find what I need at any local supermarket. As I assumed walking down the aisles of local beauty shops such as Etos, I could find a huge selection of hair care products but none which catered to my hair type. For African woman like myself who want to find hair products that suit our natural, often dry and frizzy afro hair, there are few to no options on the shelves of local beauty shops or drugstores. The only other option that we have is to either order these products online or find a local beauty supply store that specifically caters to our type of hair. Depending on where one lives this can either prove to be complicated or simple, as for the Netherlands it was rather simple due to the huge African community that lives here.
On a Friday afternoon I decided to go buy some products for myself as well as conduct my research assignment. I wanted it to be as authentic as possible, so I decided to pretend to be just a customer and to observe the environment. There were four people in total working at the shop, three woman and one man all which seemed to belong to the African community. The shop was surprisingly empty besides me, there was only one more female customer. After a while, a few more customers entered the shop and as there was not much interaction happening, I decided to speak to one of the customers, a girl who was looking at braiding hair.
I introduced myself and the topic of my research and asked her simple questions like ‘how often do you come here?’, ‘how do you feel about this place? Do you think it is necessary to have such a shop?’. I had prepared a few simple questions prior to my coming to the shop as a conversation starter in case I would need them. The girl, whose name was Yara, explained to me that she often comes here as it is the only place where she can find products that work for her hair type. She also sometimes comes here when she has nothing else to do as she feels comfortable in this place. When I asked her why this was the case, she explained that she likes how all the products here are catered to her and that she often feels that local beauty shops only cater to European woman. She elaborated this by explaining that when she goes to Etos she spends too much time googling certain products before buying them just to make sure she can use it in her type 4 hair. This is an experience that I certainly can relate to and many other women with afro hair can relate too. At that point she seemed to be done with her shopping, so I thank her for her participation and continued with my observation.
There were also a few male customers at the shop, two to be exact. Interestingly, I noticed that the men immediately went to a specific area of the shop and spend less time in the shop than their female counterparts who often browsed every corner of the shop. From this I assumed that the male customers come to the shop with a specific purpose and leave as soon as it is fulfilled. Whereas women tend to spend more time in the shop and genuinely enjoy going through every corner of the store while looking at all the different products. Due to COVID-19 measurements there was a limited amount of people that could enter the store at once, so I could not stay long enough in the store as the number of customers waiting outside was starting to pile up.
On my way home I reflected on why products that specifically cater to afro hair was not sold at local supermarkets when there is a huge demand for it. On the contrary however, I doubt that customers would get the same experience that they get at the African beauty supply store in any other store. So perhaps it is much more than just about hair, maybe it is about feeling like there is space specifically for you or perhaps the shop itself stands as a small representation of the African community that lives in the Netherlands. As I reflect on the findings of my research, I realise the privilege that I had to discuss the topic of hair, that often is a very sensitive conversation in our community, with a stranger. I acknowledged that perhaps if I was of a different ethnicity this could have been regarded as problematic questions to ask a black woman. Nonetheless, I believe that me being part of the community also provided a space for Yara to honestly share her opinion without having to minimise it or feel misunderstood.