Of Hair and Humanity: An Interview with Whitney White


Imagine this: a Black woman walks into an average retail corporation in need of hair conditioner for her 4a coils only to walk aisles of white-owned hair care brands plastered with images of hair textures nowhere near her own. She searches for a conditioner that caters to her textured hair but is met with no success. There is a name for this experience: Whitewashing. Whitewashing is the phenomenon in which people of color are indirectly or directly conditioned to resemble Eurocentric beauty ideals (such as light skin and straight hair). This ideal is oppressive, and it can be attributed to an historic corporate lack of true racial diversity and representation of people of color. While most haircare brands remain tone-deaf to the needs of women of color, at least one company is working to dismantle whitewashing. Whitney White is the founder of Melanin Haircare. In this interview, I asked what she knows about the destructive nature of whitewashing, and how her Black-owned brand is creating spaces for Black women and their hair to be celebrated and accurately represented. Shannon: Tell me about Melanin Haircare and how it serves its target community. White: Melanin Haircare was actually born out of a response from the community that it serves. It started when I was making do-it-yourself hair products from natural ingredients available at home, or with items I had to order. Women either tried them and loved them—which was great—or they discovered they couldn’t really create the product themselves, they didn’t get the feel that they wanted, or, they just didn’t have the time or funds to do it. So, they asked me to make and sell my creations to them. Melanin Haircare was a literal answer to their problems. Their requests for natural, non-toxic products arose in the online communities of Naptural85 and Melanin Haircare. We provide natural products that are safe. We do extensive research into every single ingredient that we put [into the products]. We check [ingredients] against the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) database to make sure that they’re safe and nontoxic. We don’t compromise. Customers know the ingredients that are inside our products and know what to expect after they’ve seen the products on my channel. Shannon: How do you personally identify with the phrase “whitewashing?” White: Growing up, I think it was just really ingrained in [Black people] that white was right. We never had our own dolls. I remember having one [Black Barbie], but there was an Anniversary Barbie that came out when I was younger. That Barbie had a big gown…but she still had relaxed hair and features like a white girl. We never really knew how to do our hair [because] we were so conditioned to make our hair look like white, European hair. Straighten it out. Make it look presentable. When I went natural, there was no help for [Black people] in 2009. There was no help for us because of whitewashing…[and] the majority of stylists didn’t know how to do natural hair. They were still leaning on relaxers to serve their Black customers, and a lot of [stylists] weren’t supporting “going natural.” Because of having all these images of Eurocentric beauty being the ‘right’ standard, niches like Natural Hair Community, were born. We had to come together, love up on ourselves, build ourselves up, and teach each other how to do hair because no one was teaching it to us. Everything I have done with Naptural85 and Melanin Haircare is to go against that beauty standard, to help women embrace their natural hair, and learn to be confident in it. Whitewashing creates an internal, unconscious trauma in [Black people] that we are not good enough, that the way that we look is not good enough, and that if we are going to be accepted in any way, we have to change ourselves to look more Eurocentric. That trauma became our motivation and was the inspiration to push out of it. Shannon: Share a few ways that Melanin Haircare actively participates in representing and celebrating Black-centered haircare and authentic beauty. White: Everything that we post on all of our socials [and] on our website are all actual customers using the products themselves and how they learn to use the products in different ways. Each customer uses different amounts of products for their unique hair types. So, we always want to make sure that if you go to our feed and scroll, you’re always going to see a different person, a different hair type, a different gender, a different age, a different everything.We want to make sure that our customer base feels welcome and [they know] that this is a place for [them]. Because these products are all-natural and customizable, they work. Every hair type is represented…everybody is seen, and everybody is welcomed. Also, we really love sharing stories from our “MelaninBae” family. For Father’s Day, we posted stories of three “MelaninBae” fathers [and] how they learned to do hair. We just love learning more about the people in our community and sharing their stories. Anytime we can do that, we will. Shannon: What advice would you give to Black women and girls who want to identify with their kinks and curls? White: My first piece of advice is to not follow anybody who makes you feel bad about yourself for any reason. If you don’t get anything positive from that interaction, just don’t follow it. There’s too much comparison on social media. Find [and follow] women who look like you. I don’t think there’s anything wrong [with taking] advice from women who have different hair types than yours. But, also try to find women online who have your hair type that can show you how they have personally found success in styling their hair. Take the time to play in your hair. On a weekend when you have nothing else to do, take time to play. Play in your hair because you can’t learn how to do your hair without styling it first. Style it first and see what it does. It’s like playing with clay. You’ve got to figure out how to mold it and how best to play around with it. Work with hair products that you’re comfortable with. Don’t use something that you don’t really know how to use. When you’re first starting out, work with products that you’re comfortable with, that are simple. Then, once you get the hang of it, then add a little bit more “move around” and try different things. Understand that you don’t have to have curls to be beautiful. Find your hair type online in an editorial to understand how beautiful it is. See how other people style [your hair type] and really understand that it’s beautiful in its own way. It takes a little bit of confidence to build up to that and that’s fine. It happens with everybody. You just have to keep seeing yourself in the mirror in order for you to realize that you look beautiful and to gain your confidence. The more you do anything, the more confident you are. Through the product, Black women like Whitney White are creatively demonstrating authentic celebration of Black hair and community.