Activists apply ‘critical race theory’ to Utah’s beauty industry. Here’s why that matters.

Talking about braids, the C.R.O.W.N. Act, and the real meaning of ‘critical race theory.’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lexy Heuston, 11, patiently sits in a salon chair for eight hours as Essence of Ebony hair salon owner and stylist Imani Powell braids her hair into cornrows, March 10, 2022, in West Jordan.

Lexy Heuston, age 11, is completely at ease as she gets her hair done, watching something on her iPad, even though she’s been sitting in the chair for almost 8 hours now.

Lexy doesn’t mind, because her stylist, Imani Powell, knows what she’s doing.

On this day, Powell is putting Lexy’s hair in cornrows, pulled back from her face — a must for her, as a ballerina. Later, Powell will add gold cuffs.

Lexy loves getting her hair done, she said, and her favorite part is the shampoo process. Every time Lexy leaves Powell’s salon, she said, she “feels like a new person.”

Her mother, Kelley Heuston, said Lexy didn’t always have a good experience having her hair done. There were visits with various hair salons and stylists in Utah, her mom said, that left Lexy in tears.

Then, last summer, they started visiting Powell, Kelley said.

“If she tries something new, you just see her start to grin. We’ll walk out and she’ll be shaking her hair, she’ll go, ‘Mom, look at this’, and she’s very quiet about it, but she’ll say ‘I’m so pretty,’ Lexy’s mother said.

“She is gentle and she talks to you,” Lexy says of Powell. “She doesn’t just ignore you.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lexy Heuston, 11, anxiously waits to see her new hair style after sitting in a salon chair for eight hours as Essence of Ebony hair salon owner Imani Powell puts the finishing touches and gold beads into Heuton's cornrows, Mar. 10, 2022 in West Jordan.

Powell’s salon, Essence of Ebony in West Jordan, is one of 19 Black hair salons and barber shops in Utah, according to the Utah Black Chamber’s most recent directory. For Utah’s growing Black population, the experience of having one’s hair done properly isn’t just a matter of looking good — it’s about personal identity.

It’s also an issue of discrimination — as some of Powell’s clients can be discriminated against simply for wearing their hair in a natural style at school or work.

According to a 2021 survey commissioned by Dove, the soap and skincare brand, 100% of Black girls in majority-white elementary schools reported experiencing hair discrimination — being treated differently because of their hair — by the age of 10.

Lexy’s mother, Kelley Heuston, said her daughter has already experienced unwanted attention because of her hair — like how, when she wore her hair in an afro, people touched her hair without permission.

And as Lexy approaches her teen years, Kelley Heuston admitted she’s concerned she’ll be treated differently because of her hair — and the best thing she can do as a parent is to prepare her daughter for how to deal with it. That’s why it’s important, for her daughter and all Black kids in Utah, for the U.S. Congress and Utah Legislature to pass their versions of the C.R.O.W.N. Act.

The bill going through the U.S. Congress — the acronym stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” — prohibits “discrimination based on an individual’s texture or style of hair.” It passed the U.S. House on March 18; its fate in the evenly divided U.S. Senate is unclear.

In Utah, State Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, has sponsored a version of the C.R.O.W.N. Act for the last three years, with no success. In the legislative session that ended in March, the bill, SB117, was bottled up in the powerful Senate Rules Committee.

The inaction by the Utah Legislature, Powell said, is part of a larger issue at play in Utah’s beauty industry: Not just a lack of resources accessible to Black Utahns, but a cosmetology education system geared toward a white person’s esthetic.

“If you are looking at the industry of cosmetology, immediately you think of a white blonde person,” Powell said. “You have this image of what that looks like because that’s what they wanted to do. That was the intent. That is the purpose. And they have been thriving ever since.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The hands of Essence of Ebony hair salon owner and stylist Imani Powell part the hair of Lexy Heuston as she braids her hair into cornrows, Mar. 10, 2022 in West Jordan.

‘Most segregated industry’

In Utah, cosmetology schools require a minimum of 1,600 hours of completed training, along with passing two cosmetology licensing tests.

According to Devin Johnson Kramer, president of the non-profit Utah Beauty Project, the state’s education system isn’t thorough enough.

“Hair school in Utah is designed to teach you how to make hair straight,” said Johnson Kramer, who went through such an education herself. “It’s designed to teach you how to do white [people’s] hair.”

In her seven years in the industry, Johnson Kramer said, she’s had to go out of her way to learn how to work with Black hair, because it was never taught to her at school. She said it’s treated more like a “niche” that people can get into if they choose.

Johnson Kramer has reached out to cosmetology schools in Utah about this gap in their curriculum. The overwhelming response, she said: “We don’t need to teach Black hair because we don’t have that demographic here.”

The state of Utah doesn’t require would-be stylists to learn much of anything about how Black people’s hair is to be handled, Johnson Kramer said. “The only type of inclusivity that we have to learn to take on the state board exam is a chemical relaxer,” she said, referring to products that uncurl Black people’s natural hair texture.

A spokesperson for the Utah Department of Commerce said the state uses a licensing test for hair stylists from a national testing provider.

“We have the most segregated industry in America, and it’s time that we kind of start having these conversations, especially in this state where it’s really prevalent,” Johnson Kramer said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Stylist Ray Benoit, Evelyn Perez-Landron, Stylist Imani Powell and Lexy Heuston share a laugh in Powell's hair salon, Essence of Ebony, Mar. 10, 2022 in West Jordan. Powell offers natural hair coaching, styling and Crown Certification for Black women and men who want to learn the styles and techniques for locs, loc extensions, cornrows, box braids, adult and children's styles, two strand twists, passion twists, and coils.

Critical Race Theory in beauty

Powell learned about Black hair and basic cosmetology from her parents, who both worked in the industry when she was growing up in New Jersey. When she studied at a Utah beauty school, she saw the stark contrast between education here and there.

Powell said she had only one Black teacher while at school. “She only knew the extent to what they taught her in school, which means that she did not know anything about Black hair, even though she’s Black herself,” Powell said.

As she earned her hours, she said, her fellow students began asking Powell to teach them how to work with Black hair — because they weren’t learning that in class.

The requests from students to staff began rising in the summer of 2020, when issues of racial discrimination received more attention nationwide in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The staff asked Powell to teach about handling Black hair, for free, on top of her own educational responsibilities.

Ultimately, Powell dropped out because of that demand, as well as other reasons — including the fact that Utah does not require a license to braid hair. That means she can run Essence of Ebony, where her clientele is all Black, legally without a license.

Powell said she felt bad about not finishing school, because she’s an “advocate of finishing what you start.” (Johnson Kramer said 20% of people who enroll in cosmetology school in Utah don’t graduate.) Powell doesn’t feel like she was missing out on any experience, though, because she learned more growing up at her mother’s salon than she did in school, she said.

Her experience at the school became “very charged” around the politics — and the systemic racism — within her profession, she said.

From her mother’s salon, Powell said, she learned about “the politics behind why relaxers came into existence, especially for Black people. The stigma behind what professional looks like and what nappy is, and how that’s unprofessional and unkempt.”

Johnson Kramer echoes that sentiment. For example, she said, cosmetology schools teach the history of hairstyles that include the bobs and pin curls of the roaring ‘20s, but “we don’t learn that about Black hair at all,” she said.

While Lexy was getting her hair done, her mother, Kelley Heuston, noted that Michelle Obama, one of the most recognized Black women in America — and one of the most respected people in the country — didn’t start wearing her hair naturally until after her family left the White House.

Such examples of systemic bias and lack of inclusivity in the industry have prompted Johnson Kramer to say that the Utah Beauty Project’s work is akin to “critical race theory,” the scholarly argument discussed in law schools that examines where racial bias intersects with the law.

The phrase now sits in the center of a loaded political debate, co-opted by conservative pundits and politicians and turned into a catch-all insult for anything that suggests the existence of systemic racism.

Kelley Heuston talks about her past experience as a teacher, giving lessons on the civil rights movement and Black history. She called the current political debate over critical race theory “asinine.”

“Black history is American history,” she said. “I think human beings are terrified of things that aren’t familiar. The fact that we’re talking about critical race theory is a joke.”

Amplifying the Black experience

Another of Powell’s regulars, Evelyn Perez-Landon, said Powell has perfected the Black hair experience, “the certain smells, certain sounds, and even the ambiance that she brings here, you don’t see it anywhere else.”

Perez-Landon moved to Utah from Boston, where ethnic enclaves like Jamaica Plain were go-to neighborhoods for Black customers. Powell, she said, was something of a savior. Her hands, her clients say, are golden.

Perez-Landon said Powell taught her how to take care of her hair between appointments. She said she was anxious the first time she came to the salon, but feels much more confident now.

Another customer, Trevor Gordon, grew up in Utah. His parents cut his and his siblings’ hair at home, he said. When he got older, it was easy for him to go to barber shops — but more difficult for his sisters.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trevor Gordon shows off his new two strand twist hair style from Essence of Ebony hair salon owner Imani Powell, Mar. 10, 2022 in West Jordan. Gordon said he wore his hair in a buzz cut previously because he could not find a hair stylist in Utah who was trained in the art of Black natural hair styling and hair care.

As an adult, Gordon said, he finds it important “for those young Black kids and young Black women to be able to have access to the knowledge” that Powell has learned.

Powell is working to expand her own services and teach others how to work with Black hair. She offers classes and workshops, so anyone can learn from her. In early April, she plans to teach a Natural Hair certification program. “I want to offer a very specific experience for people and create a space for Black people to feel comfortable in their own skin,” she said.

Her workshops are two days long, each day featuring a 12-hour intensive educational experience — with 8 hours of theory reading from three different books. One book, Powell said, is about Black hair culture and history.

“The Black experience has been specifically taken out of education, since the beginning of this country,” she said. Because of that, “we have to work really hard to make sure that people that are going to get into [this business] are very, very aware of what it actually means to be able to style someone that is a person of color or Black.”

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