“Let me fix my weave”: Ethical business, redemption, and the transnational Human Hair Trade
by Solène Bryson
Earlier this year, US customs seized an 11.8 tonne shipment of weaves and other beauty accessories made from human hair, suspected to be sourced from people locked inside a Xinjiang internment camp in China (Taipei Times, 2020). Unfortunately, news coverage on the exploitative character of the transnational human hair trade (THHT) is not unusual. Women can be offered a mere US$2 for their hair in sourcing countries, yet the value of the hair increases exponentially as it travels through the commodity chain, being transformed into weaves and wigs sold at consumer-end markets between US$400 and US$10,000 (Ladizinski et al., 2013; Carville, 2016). The THHT is largely unregulated, relies heavily on informal sourcing practices and virtual in distribution (Tarlo, 2016; Osborne, 2018). The very nature of the THHT raises questions on ethical business but also gendered and racialised power asymmetries across multiple locations.
My study takes an interdisciplinary approach of analysing ethical business with intersectional racialised and gendered features of the THHT. Scholarship into ethical business has arisen in opposition to the unethical business practices that characterise our global commodity chains. It assumes that ethical business can tame and even redeem capitalism from its ills. My study asks: can ethical human hair companies’ practices and discourses redeem the THHT?
To answer this question, I explore the practices and discourses of two ethical companies that sell human hair weaves to the African diaspora: Remy New York (RNY) and Ayune Hair (AH). RNY describe themselves as the world’s first ethical hair company, selling products sourced from Vietnam (RNY, 2018; 2020). AH was co-founded by Valerie Ogoke selling products from Southeast Asia (Harriet, 2018; AH, 2020; 2020b).
I employ transnational feminist Priti Ramamurthy’s Feminist Commodity Chain (FCC) concept as an analytical framework, which analyses women’s labour and gender ideologies at each node of the commodity chain (Ramamurthy, 2004). Ramamurthy (2003) explores the relationship between the material and semiotic of global commodities across multiple locations. When a commodity is produced and travels, so are collective and individual identities. Most importantly, women are produced differently through the same production process. Where literature on Global Commodity Chain’s focus on economic progress through distribution of capital, FCC is also interested in representation of space and place. This allows me to evaluate the impact of THHT beyond the production of hair itself to the discursive and cultural subjects produced in company representational strategies. I supplement Ramamurthy’s framework with concepts of intersectionality and racial capitalism to explicitly draw out racial power dynamics that can be missed in gendered epistemologies.
I find that the THHT cannot be redeemed by ethical human hair companies, but those companies can use their position to negotiate with the extractive terms on which it operates. I describe this as ‘positional negotiation’, as RNY and AH use their location to confront and negotiate with the conditions in the THHT that are exploitative. My findings bring me to various discussion points.
Disciplining the feminised body
Both RNY and AH have sought to renegotiate some of the exploitative ways’ the THHT engages with the female body. For RNY, they honour the invisible and gendered labour it takes to grow and care for one’s hair by paying a higher than market price for it. For example, Choi pays a woman US$100, more than a months’ income for her entire family, when market price can be US$2 (Refinery29, 2018). Nonetheless, I would contend that RNY practices are also part of the discourse of sacrifice for economic empowerment. What type of narrative does RNY produce if one of the ways women can be empowered is to sacrifice their body? Granted, it’s not as destructive as an actual body part, especially since hair can regrow. Nevertheless, I would argue RNY is practicing a disciplinary form of power, as they transform women into economic agents who discipline their bodies for production that eventually ‘develops’ her household (Foucault, 1975). RNY disciplines female desires, as their discourses present a narrative that channels women to think only about economic enhancement.
In contrast, AH does not place women within a position of sacrifice, as women do not have to cut their hair but only give what’s naturally fallen (AH, 2020). However, the fact that Indonesian women know that they can supplement their income through collecting hair waste is both resourceful yet a survival strategy. A survival strategy that has been rebranded as empowering. The careful daily methodological practice of collecting and controlling bodily waste to give to the hair collector is also disciplinary. Moreover, unlike RNY who produce their hair extension products themselves, AH’s does not disclose detailed information of the sorting process after collection of hair waste, nor how much they pay hair collectors or hacklers. We see a positional negotiation take place, as both companies provide opportunity for women to give their consent and exercise control over their body. In parallel they also allow others to own parts and discipline the female body for capital extraction
Production of Otherness
An important finding at the production node of the THHT is the reliance on producing Otherness. Black hair commentators have questioned as to why we do not see Chinese women en masse in China wearing Black hairstyles as their daily image of themselves (Oyedemi, 2018). This point is not about cultural appropriation of African diaspora hairstyles, but the intersecting racial and gendered hierarchies when it comes to undesirability of kinkier textured hair. The desire for South East Asian hair is based on what Emma Tarlo describes as the artificiality of race, a racial taxonomy that originated during colonialism (2016). Throughout the nineteenth century, racialised sexual differences of Asians and of Africans emerged as a normative taxonomy. Differences of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ are traces of liberal forgetting, as they are inventions from colonial powers that were used to control populations (Lowe, 2015). The products are in demand not just because they represent a desirable femininity, but due to the intersecting site of national and racial markers with that femininity. RNY and AH very product’s existence reproduces exotification and objectification of South East Asian femininities. This highlights the limitations of ethical companies who seek to redeem the THHT, as their product requires racialised and gendered hierarchies to circulate.
Nevertheless, the desire for dramatically long, thick, and wavy hair is unlike the hair of European women, neither is it South East Asian, as AH’s hair needs to be transformed from its original straight texture (Dabiri, 2019). AH produces subjects that do not necessarily desire to embody other cultures’ beauty norms but create space for new expressions of Black femininities that defy racial boundaries. This is supported by Tarlo who states that weaves create “semi-fictional ethnic identities” that are less about racial appropriation and more about multi-cultured hair that transcends race (2019: 338). This may relate to the African diaspora’s relationship with artifice (Dabiri, 2019). As argued by Dosekun (2016), weaves are the unhappy technology of Black femininity, as they create a new standard neither South East Asian women nor African diasporic women can achieve ‘naturally’, whilst also creating spaces for innovation in the margins of hegemonic European beauty ideals (Glapka, 2016). RNY and AH’s products create subjects in perplexity, both reliant on racial capitalism yet finding spaces for multiple expressions of Black femininities.
To ask whether RNY and AH discourses and practices can redeem the THHT is not to assume that two companies have the capability to transform an entire industry. Rather I have sought to expose some of the assumptions made by ethical business pedagogies. I have demonstrated that even ethical businesses engaging in the THHT sustain and reproduce gendered and racialised hierarchies. This shifts our perspective from viewing ethical companies as purely ‘good’ vis-à-vis ‘unethical’ companies, but as producing perplex realities and subjectivities. AH and RNY positional negotiation interpolate subjects into power asymmetries that are not transformed but contended and remobilised. Their work is one of perplexity, rather than purely ethical and redemptive. I think this reflects the perplexity within us all, as we try to negotiate power asymmetries from our own location.
My study is ultimately an endeavour to highlight the experiences of ethical consumption practices of the African diaspora, who are continually marginalised in academic scholarship. As a member of the African diaspora, this disavowal of our place in the capitalist system contributes to our erasure. I also set out to highlight how unethical the THHT was because I did not believe weaves should be admitted as an authentic expression of blackness. But who am I to determine what blackness is? I think my misplaced judgment was an act of self-projection, reflecting previous insecurities around long hair contrasting to my afro hair (Hirsch, 2017). By associating blackness with a texture, I reproduced the Black woman as a homogenous category, reducing her to a hairstyle. Just as my afro hairstyle is a diasporic invention, so is the weave (Mercer, 1987). Both are performative of blackness but neither embody what it means to be Black within themselves.
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