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What I Learned as the Only White Student at a Black Hair Academy

VelmaB Braiding Black Hair Academy Black Hair Academy - Image of Texas Cosmetology License From Velma B's Braiding Academy

“Does that white girl over there know how to do flat hair twists? I want her to do my hair.”

I instantly knew the middle-aged black woman at the front desk was talking about me to the school’s owner, Miss Velma. How did I know this new walk-in hair client meant me?

Because I was the only white girl at Velma B’s Beauty Academy and Salon.

Latasha, my station mate and friend, giggled. “You’re in trouble now.”   I was scared. I had been trained to style a range of hair twists, from flat to mini, but I had only created them on fellow students, who were my guinea pigs.

From the frying pan into the fire

Image of Karen M. Shelton With Cornrows - Black Hair Academy Black Hair Academy - Karen M. Shelton wearing cornrow braids created by Velma B students

“Will you help me, Tasha?” I begged.

“We’ll all help you, Blondie, including Teach.”

I was relieved. The last thing I wanted to do was let the school’s owner, my instructors, or the other students down when I worked on an actual client. What if the client hated the style I created for her? Or what if I was too rough working on her scalp?

Since no walk-ins had previously asked for me or been willing to have me work on their heads, I was relegated to mannequins and any of the students who would trade styling services with me. 

I was the only white student — a blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned white girl — in a school of all black people. One of my hair station neighbors teased me by calling me Blondie, and the other called me Ghost.

The student's different nicknames evolved from a place of love and affection.  I was touched they cared enough to give me nicknames.

Even though I had previously graduated from a Paul Mitchell cosmetology school and had a hairdressing license, I was nervous about attending the school, initially founded by the famous Madame C. J. Walker.

I had nothing to worry about.  Everyone, from the current owner to all the instructors and students, welcomed me with open arms.

I was encouraged to wear traditional black hairdos Black Hair Academy

Cornrow Braided Mannequin - Black Hair Academy Black Hair Academy - Image of Karen M. Shelton Mannequin showcasing cornrow braids

Many of my student friends encouraged me to try wearing all the braided hairdos I'd eventually created for clients.  They wanted me to understand firsthand what they felt like whe they were being created.

More importantly, they wanted me to learn how wearing the different black looks felt like.

One of the first black styles the students created for me was traditional cornrows. I endured many hours in a chair, having my thick waist-length strands tightly braided.

Since I had so much hair, students worked together to finish the hairstyle.

I was shocked at how time-consuming and painful the braiding process was.

The tightness of the braids put pressure on my scalp, and I immediately developed an intense headache.

Trying to sleep on tightly braided strands was a brand-new experience. I had to learn to sleep on my stomach.  The cornrows were gorgeous, but they were also painful. After my tresses were plaited, it didn’t take long before my scalp began itching intensely.

I was criticized for wearing black hairstyles from the Black Hair Academy

Tightly Coiled Hair Kinks - Black Hair Academy Black Hair Academy - Tightly Coiled Kinks - Image by Justin Essah

After cornrows, my hair was twisted, rolled, and braided into several traditional black styles.

Everyone at the school who worked on my head was very proud of the styles they designed and created on my head.

Ironically, while all my black hair academy friends loved the hairstyles on my blonde hair, I received criticism, negative comments, and disapproval in my community.

I was openly accused of misappropriating black hairstyles. When I tried to explain I was studying black hair styles or that my fellow students wanted me to wear the style, no one would listen.  I felt sad how people could focus on what was initialy a wonderful and supportive experience.

It was ironic. When I attended a local Paul Mitchell Academy to qualify for my license, I often wore various traditional white hairstyles home from class. I received many compliments from fellow students, friends, family, and strangers.

The Paul Mitchell Academy I attended had no black students.  One of the reasons I decided to participate in Velma B's academy to get a braiding license was to learn hairstyles for all hair types, not just white.

What I discovered from my time at Velma B’s Black Hair Academy

Woman With Natural Hairstyle Black Hair Academy - Woman With Natural Hairstyle - Jeffery Erhunse

If they are open-minded, people of all races can find common ground to work together, have fun, and establish long-lasting friendships.

According to PEW Research, there’s no question the U.S. is becoming much more racially and ethnically diverse.

The Civil Rights Act because a law in 1964.  At that time, only 18 percent of white claimed to have a black friend.

In 1998, approximately 86 percent aid they had black friends.  Also, 87 percent of blacks asserted they had white friends.

Many Americans say they have at least some close friends from other races. While friendshp clearly transcends race and ethnicity, the two are strongly correlated.

Most people have more friends within their own race group than they do among races different from theirs, but this trend continues to change over time.

All cultures can learn from each other with respect

Natural Black Hair Coils Black Hair Academy - Natural Black Hair Coils by Leighann Blackwood

Hate is a virus.  It's fueled by the failure of people to see our common bonds.

Attending the black cosmetology school was a revolutionary step towards eradicating my preconceptions about others.  The academy students took me under their wing.  They showed me the best hair products to use on black hair and where to purchase them.

My station mates often invited me to lunch at their favorite neighborhood hangout. We had many opportunities to listen and learn from one another.  There's no better way to bond than by sharing a meal.

Bringing students from different backgrounds together to listen and learn from each other was a wonderful experience. I was delighted to discover that, with my fellow black hair students, no matter where we were from, who we loved, or what religion we worshiped, we were all bound together by the same purpose.

We all wanted to learn how to create fabulous styles for our clients. Working together at the black hair academy, we were about to take steps toward defeating hair pipelines.

Feeling Accepted at the Black Hair Academy

Natural Hair Twists Black Hair Academy - Hair Twists - Raquel Santana Unsplash

It’s one thing to feel like you have something in common with one racial group. But the bar is higher regarding feeling accepted by those people. Feelings about acceptance track closely with feeling a common bond.

I made fantastic friends. It was a blessing.  This was one of the best experiences in my life.  I stay in touch with many of the students many years later.

Sadly, Miss Velma Brooks, the woman who bought her beauty school from the famed Madam C.J. Walker in 1985, passed away in 2017.

Velma B’s Beauty Academy and Salon is no longer in existence.

I have many great memories from my Velma B’s Academy experience and am still in touch with many former students.

Hairdressing is not a job.  It's a craft and a way to learn about all different types of people and their cultures.

For me, it was the experience of a lifetime.

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