Colorism dominates the Dominican beauty industry

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The Flag of the Dominican Republican

By Shannon Garrido, Deputy Opinion Editor

Ingrid Patricia Grassals, founder and owner of Go Natural Caribe, the first natural hair salon in the Dominican Republic, shuttered her salon doors due the COVID-19 pandemic in January. She had offered an essential service to Dominicans—natural hair care, a rarity in the Dominican beauty industry until the last 10 years. 

“Until about 10 years ago, [Dominican] women made money by making hair straight,” Grassals said in an interview with The Beacon. “Our beauty industry began to change when a community was created. We are known to the world for straightening hair, but it took a while for women with Afro-hair to get a service catered towards them, and for you to treat me with affection like any other.” 

Understanding colorism in the Dominican Republic can be challenging and complex. As a white dominican myself, I don’t personally experience the racial disparities in a country that is 70 percent people of mixed African and European descent, according to the Human Rights Group International. However, there is one aspect of Dominican identity that is so heavily colorist almost anyone can see it—the beauty industry. Salons and beauty stores are a huge market in the Dominican Republic, and any woman who lives here can tell you that getting their hair done weekly is not uncommon. 

There are many ethnic and racial prejudices that influence the construction of discriminatory and exclusive ideologies, harming the majority Afro-descendant population in Dominican society. CEPAL reports that the consequences experienced today are the result of years of human trafficking and slavery. This is evident through racist policies and rhetoric purported to this day. 

Miami Herald reporter Frances Robles talked about her report on colorism in the Dominican Republic on NPR, describing it as so ingrained in Dominican culture, that many Black Dominicans deny their color in the first place.  

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“I would say that the majority of the Black people—particularly in the Dominican Republic—don’t consider themselves Black,” Rables said “I’m saying people who are in the United States would be an African-American like anyone else. They just don’t see that in themselves.” 

The Dominican Republic is the only country in Latin America that got its freedom from Haiti, not from Spain, in the 1800s. Even after they were freed, presidents and political leaders in the Dominican Republic instigated the notion that anything Haitian was bad, furthermore, that anything Black was bad. I see and hear the ramifications of this mentality every day.

Racism seeps into every aspect of our day-to-day lives, and the beauty industry is no stranger to it—in every corner of the world. However, the Dominican Republic has a unique relationship with race and beauty. The Executive Vice President of the Association of Industries (AIRD), Circe Almánzar, said that Dominican beauty products are perceived as a “country brand,” as in a staple for Dominicans around the world. 

The President of the Association of Small and Medium Manufacturers of Cosmetics (Apymefac), Juan Rodríguez, points out that the cosmetics sector generates 193,500 direct and indirect jobs. Rodríguez highlights that in the country, there are 150,000 beauty salons and another 40,000 consumers in lines as suppliers and representatives of product lines. He also points out that although beauty products are only 25 percent of products in stores’ shelves, 75 percent of those beauty products are consumed in the DR

This is because the DR is one of the few countries where most people (mostly women) go to beauty parlors weekly. The beauty industry is crucially important to the Dominican population and is a driving force in the economy. Needless to say, how we market beauty is incredibly important, and these marketing techniques often reflect how Dominicans think of beauty standards. 

Even though the practice of attending these parlors feels like a cultural experience, unique to Dominicans, especially Dominican women, it can also be quite taxing. An article by Melissa Godin in SAPIEN Magazine said it best, “Dominican hair culture is far from glamorous.” It’s pricey, and at times ritualistic, but most alarmingly steeped in Eurocentric beauty standards. 

Although, as previously mentioned, Grassal’s Salon closed in January of this year, they continue to give workshops and sell from their product line. 

As someone with an Associate of Arts (AA) focused in Fashion and Apparel Design from Altos de Chavón School of Design in Santo Domingo, Grassals explained that she never meant to indulge in the line of cosmetics, rather the idea fell at her feet. 

“I have had natural hair since 1998, but in 2010 is when I began to discover that there was a movement in the United States on natural hair and it seemed very interesting to me because to date, I did not know anywhere specialized on the care of Afro-hair,” she said.

Grassals became frustrated finding little to no information online or through other hair stylists on what to do with her natural hair. She said it simply wasn’t what people considered necessary to the beauty industry. 

“The training that Dominicans have on hair care is always like that idea of ​​‘Wao, you wash your hair, put on the curlers and blow dry’, that’s the routine,” she said.

One that obviously ends with pin straight hair, free of the natural locks. 

She used this issue as an incentive to start her blog, where she would try at home treatments and oils on her hair to see what worked best for her. Grassals adds that although it was a drastic and difficult change at first, it really paid off for her. She created products at home, and took in and took on clients at home. Soon, her success grew so much that she was able to open up her own salon. It was the same indifference from other salons to cater to all womens hair that helped her attract more clients. 

“There was a salon in front of us and everyone who came in with curly hair to the front salon, even if they didn’t know about my salon, was sent in because they didn’t want to work with curly hair.” Grassals said. 

She said Go Natural Caribe was not created to shame women for doing what they want with their hair, but to embrace a part of them that many didn’t even know existed. Grassals recants memories of young girls who she could tell had naturally textured hair, and never even knew. They had been straightening their hair for so long that they had no idea how it actually looked—and this wasn’t a unique incident, she says, it happened quite often. 

This is ingrained in our culture, and it is too visible to ignore. However, women like Grassals have inspired others for the better. 

Because I am a white Latina, I will never understand the burden Afro-descended women carry. However, I live here, and it is not hard to see that when I walk into a salon, they treat me differently than they do my friends of color. My hair is ‘cabello bueno’ or ‘good hair,’ and stylists tell me I should be thankful that I was ‘blessed’ with these easy to manage locks. I don’t get offered as many products and services, and I am out of there in two hours maximum. Meanwhile, my friend with much more textured hair than me laughs it off with the woman who washes her hair; 

“Ay que yo voy a hace’ con eto’ moño,” which translates to, “What am I gonna do about this hair?” 

For years I thought I was less ‘high maintenance’ because I didn’t always feel like I had to go to the salon. But that is because everytime I went in I was told I looked great, so why would I need to go? On the other hand, many of my friends and family saw it as a necessity to get their hair done every Friday and I never (and will never), understand why. 

REMEZCLA wrote an article back in 2015, for which they interviewed Carolina Contreras, better known as Miss Rizo, another founder of one of Santo Domingo’s first natural hair salons. The now 29-year-old activist and social entrepreneur discusses her experiences as an Afro-Latina who decided to go all natural. She received scrutiny from her parents who would threaten to relax her hair while she slept, and her brother who called her names for wearing her hair how she wanted. 

I saw this first hand when my now 10 year-old little sister, who has naturally curly and textured hair, relaxed her hair for a year straight because she didn’t know what to do with it. She told me she didn’t know people with hair like hers, and no one in my house knew what to do, seeing as all our hair is different than hers. There are no salons near us that cater to her hair, they simply relax and straighten it, and so it took a while for us to learn how to style hers. 

This is why it is important to support these businesses, because not only do they help combat these colorist beauty ideals, but as Grassals pointed out, it helps other women of color succeed in the same field. 

“I trained my hairdresser and she trained her daughter and now they have a salon too. So like every person that I have been training, not all but most of them, have been undertaking on their own as well. “

It all starts by listening. Listen to women, especially women of color, and understand where these beauty standards come from, before immediately assuming it comes from a place of shallowness.

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