Scapegoating or Community Empowerment? The Flipside of the “Korean Takeover of the Black Haircare Industry” Debate

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

After Latoya wrote the excellent article “Know Your Place, Woman: BET’s Meet the Faith on Black Marriage,” I decided to do a little additional research by checking out the BET site for the show with the all the questionable content. I ended up reading very little on Meet the Faith. In fact, the one thing that stood out to me about the site was actually a random distraction . . .

Toward the bottom of the page regarding a segment on black beauty, I noticed a survey entitled “Korean or Black Owned?” The caption read:

For the most part, Black haircare products didn’t exist until Madame C.J. Walker introduced her Wonderful Hair Grower in the early 1900s. Today, there are still very few products and equipment made for or sold by Blacks.

For such a loaded topic, there were only two simple questions:

1. There are two beauty supply stores next to each other. One is Korean-owned and sells your shampoo for $10. The other is Black-owned and sells your shampoo for $12. Where would you buy your shampoo? The Black-Owned Store or The Korean-Owned Store?

2. If the Korean-owned shop sold items $2 to $3 higher, where do you think the average Korean customer would shop? The Black-Owned Store or The Korean-Owned Store?

I immediately felt the urge to look into what had compelled this very basic set of questions and find some answers. Carmen raised a question of her own back in December, “Do Korean-Americans Control the Black Hair Market?” prompting readers to check out Aron Ranen’s documentary Black Hair and leaving them to render their own judgment on the issue. Half a year later, however, I find myself asking less about the prospect of Korean market dominance in the black haircare industry, and more about the process of seeking an answer to the inquiry itself. What methods have we used to publicly examine this market dominance and what effect have they had on the respective communities involved?

First and foremost, there is the film by Ranen. Black Hair is a documentary created to bring attention to the plight of people of African descent who attempt to manufacture and/or distribute black hair care products within the black community as they face considerable adversity in a market now controlled by Korean immigrants and their families. While some, including members of the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA), see the film, as absolute truth, I find that it could be quite easily interpreted as an open attack on Koreans. I understand quite clearly that the film is a powerful form of advocacy for keeping money spent and earned by African-Americans in the black community, but I question the need for Ranen’s clear manipulation of an already troubled case of ethnic disunity between American blacks and Korean immigrants as a means to push the “buy black” agenda.

During an interview with NPR, Ranen is asked whether or not his film creates “an environment that shows Korean proprietors as the enemy.” In defense of his work, he answers simply that he does not want to be a “hater,” but instead he wants to be a “motivator.” Yet I can’t help but consider his attempt to “motivate” the black community suspect. By publicly picking at old wounds between Koreans and African-Americans, Ranen has tapped into an increasingly lucrative market for the press: inter-ethnic conflict. The American media can’t get enough of it. Stories about people of color fighting other people of color, even if their initial disagreement has little to do with race or ethnic background, always make headline news, often yielding skewed and/or distorted results. Asian-American activist Helen Zia discusses this phenomenon in her book Asian American Dreams with regard to the L.A. Riots:

Even when reports were quick to label the riots a black-Korean problem rather than one of police brutality, replaying images of Korean Americans with guns, few reporters ventured to Koreatown or bothered to interview Korean Americans. A post-riot survey of Angelenos conducted by the Los Angeles Times queried more than a thousand people on their feelings about the riots; the front-page results reported the views of ‘White, Blacks, Hispanics, and Others.’ In explanation, Shelby Coffey, editor of the Los Angeles Times, said that Asians were not statistically significant enough to include even though they made up 11 percent of the Los Angeles population, roughly the same percentage as African Americans. Ted Koppel of ABC News dedicated two weeks of Nightline’s programs to on-site coverage in Los Angeles, visiting with African American gang members and discussing black-Korean tensions. But Koppel didn’t speak to Korean Americans. Finally, after complaints of bias by Asian Americans in Los Angeles, attorney Angela Oh was brought on Nightline for a few minutes as a lone Korean voice.

The press had successfully distracted its viewing audience from the true source of conflict. Zia goes on to the note that, around the same time, a historic, Korean-American-led demonstration “calling for peace and denouncing the police and criminal justice system in the Rodney King criminal trial” received little media coverage. The media had successfully demonized Koreans and blacks as the main culprits for the riots themselves, but did little to follow up when progress had been made or when the aforementioned groups showed commitment to working together to eradicate identical sources of economic and social oppression.

Ranen is, in my opinion, guilty of perpetuating this biased form of media portrayals of specific ethnic groups. While acting as a supposed “motivator” (sorry, but how many times have the concerns of people of color been silenced until “illuminated” or “discovered” by members of the dominant culture?), he produces a video that makes blacks appear petty and inexperienced in their attempt to secure economic stability and that vilifies Koreans and their business practices, even though their practices are no different from those used by American-owned and operated companies. A reliance upon scapegoating to empower others is not an efficient way to fully motivate a community. Its outcome of success, if any, is often volatile, leaving many people hurt along the way.

In fact, though Koreans are never directly compared to rats, a metaphorical device used against the Chinese in American history and the Jews in German history (when both groups demonstrated considerable economic growth and business competition), Ranen relies upon similar methods to convey his argument in both the film and interviews. First and foremost, the full title of the film is Black Hair: The Korean Takeover of the Black Haircare Industry. The largest words on the advertisement for the video are Black Hair: The Korean Takeover. The rest of the title is placed on the cover as if an afterthought. Though Ranen speaks poorly of the Koreans featured in the film, he rarely features the names of the Korean business owners whom he interviews, even if speaking with them on film for a considerable amount of time. However, he is careful to include the names and even background information for the majority of the blacks he features in the film, with the exception of the speakers during street interviews. During the NPR interview, he makes sweeping statements regarding Koreans, especially with regard to their purchasing tendencies (i.e. that they would patronize other Korean establishments only, no matter the price of the products or services provided). He also makes several attempts to out-talk and silence the Korean-American participant in the interview, beauty supply store owner John Park. Lastly, he frequently offers statistics regarding Korean and Korean-American ownership of black beauty supply stores, though with little factual support. He states that his figures are based on empirical evidence only, making him sound more like a conspiracy theorist than the educator he claims to be.

Aside from the questionable nature of Ranen’s involvement, I found myself directly challenging some of the assumptions raised throughout the debate. I was not just playing Devil’s Advocate, mind you. I believe that if someone is facing discrimination from one group/person or another, they should take the appropriate means to challenge it. With that said, I am in no way attempting to serve as an apologist for Korean black hair supply chain store owners and/or distributors and manufacturers who may treat their customers unfairly. Throughout the film and in several pieces featured on the BOBSA site and other sites that feature similar discussions regarding the black hair market, black store owners and customers share grievances regarding racist acts, both overt and subtle, committed by Koreans involved in the industry. Some cases, i.e. instances of presumed subtle racism, may be the result of cultural differences. Zia explains that as many Korean store owners are immigrants, American cultural norms, particularly those that are viewed with considerable importance within the black community are overlooked and/or simply unknown upon early interaction. She notes that in New York, following several violent conflicts between Korean grocers and the inhabitants of the neighborhoods in which their stores were established (often lower income and predominately black), the Korean Produce Association advised its members not to hold on to “old customs” and subsequently issued a booklet to its members with advice like “‘Don’t speak Korean in stores,’ ‘Try to make eye contact with the customers,’ ‘Make personal touch when giving change,’ and ‘If there is a possible theft, don’t chase after,’” demonstrating the need to bridge cultural gaps.

In addition, Zia enumerates several other sources of the history of culture-based conflict between black Americans and Korean immigrants:

Most Korean storekeepers came to the United States after the civil rights movement of the 1960s and had limited knowledge of that struggle; some felt that Koreans were being used as racial cannon fodder in a black-white conflict. At the same time, many African Americans believed that Koreans disliked blacks, were rude, and received special government loans, or secret financing. . . to open their stores. Each group was burdened with misinformed stereotypes of the other; each wanted recognition and respect.

I think this particular quotation is vital to understanding some of the problems between Korean store owners working in the black community and the black community itself. It draws upon some of the basic misconceptions and assumptions regarding economic successes of Koreans and economic adversity faced byAfrican-Americans. One key element missing from the film and the discussion of the issue is the Cold War. Considering that the Korean War is what compelled many Koreans to emigrate from Korea in the 1950s and 60s in hopes of better opportunity, it’s odd that is has been virtually overlooked with regard to this matter. The U.S. connection to Korea was forged at this time and fortified in its hopes to squelch the growth of communism. Similarly to the post-WWII treatment of Japan, the United States showed considerable economic favoritism to its new acquisition in its sphere of democratic influence. With that said, I find it troubling that Korean immigrants often bear the weight of what others assume is simply an apolitical, racially-motivated “leg-up.”

However, this message of unity between the United States and South Korea fell short when Korean immigrants actually moved to the Land of the Free, where they faced considerable discrimination and were excluded from economic resources like business and home loans. Due to their inability to utilize formal means of acquiring financial support, many Koreans struggled to live out the American Dream on their own terms, even if that meant working in an niche market and creating their own community-based loan and financing organizations, along the same lines as what African Americans were forced to do following slavery. In addition, during the Reagan Era, when Korean involvement in the black haircare market began to increase significantly, many businesses (owned by people of all races) suffered due to national economic overhauling. Immigrant groups were able to seize upon this opportunity to solidify their presence in the market as well as to found additional organizations that sponsored alternative sources of economic assistance as the government’s doors were shut. Small business became a hard-earned source of income, and following the example of other minorities, Koreans used their success in order to help other Korean-Americans and Korean immigrants.

One example of this is the open invitation for familial involvement in immigration and subsequent shared business ownership. Another example includes the proliferation of guides on how to become involved in and maintain a successful business in the United States. These guides and magazines are viewed with contempt in Black Hair as they are published almost entirely in Korean. However, store owner John Park is quick to point out that this practice is done not in order to exclude English speakers (i.e. African-Americans) or to dominate the black beauty supply market, but instead to be more inclusive of Korean immigrants for whom English may not be a first language or one in which they are comfortable writing and reading. The argument takes on a new meaning when the other side of the coin, one of disadvantage due to language proficiency, is examined.

Lastly, another huge set of assumptions made during the film, interviews, and related discussions is that ethnic products should and must be controlled by the specific ethnic group for whom the products are geared, that business owners are obligated to give back to the community, particularly if they are of a different background from members of the community, and that blacks can shut down Korean-owned black haircare stores by way of boycotting. These assumptions hit the hardest because there are few clear answers to confirm or refute them. With regard to the first issue, I tried thinking of ethnic products that are not controlled by members of that group. I immediately thought (tangentially, of course) of the American exportation of labor. It seems that the majority of goods we consume are imports. Even the Made In the USA-stamped items are often made in U.S. territories abroad and not on U.S. mainland soil. But I needed something a little more direct. I then thought of entertainment and media, mainstream rap being a perfect example. Though it continues to have a black face, rap is produced, manufactured, and distributed en masse by white, male CEOs and make for quite a raw issue in the black community. I’m sure there are countless other examples of appropriation, re-packaging, and re-selling of culture (in the form of tangible goods and media), and I don’t think haircare products are the only ones. It just happens to be one of the most visible examples at present. Some assert that Koreans do not know enough about black hair to sell products to the black community, but some store owners (including some of those featured in the video and other articles) seem to exhibit a sincere interest in learning about the needs of their predominately black buying population, the Korean-language hair care magazines serving as an example (as they feature articles by black haircare specialists and beauticians).

The element of business-based community philanthropy is one that I honestly feel should be left to the proprietor. Of course, in a perfect world, we’d love for all businesses to help out in the community, and many often do, but there is no obligation set in stone for them to do so. To hold Koreans exclusively to this charge is, to be honest, hypocritical. Black businesspeople, entertainers, athletes, and generally wealthy members of the community are encouraged to “give back,” but I don’t recall any open boycotts of these businesses/members if they don’t do so. Nor are there films (that I know of) that openly accuse them of robbing the community of its resources and exploiting its respective consumer population.

Finally, with regard to boycotting Korean stores, I am not sure if this is the best step, mainly because it does not work to certify the power of black-owned stores. If anything, it weakens the focus because most of the boycotters’ energy would go toward ending the success of certain members of the market as opposed to diversifying their own. Besides a lack of black unity, which is mentioned several times in the film as one of the culprits for blacks losing a stronghold in the black haircare industry, there seems so be a reluctance on the part of the black store owners and manufacturers interviewed to change their own practices. Could it be that as a result of being “outsiders” to the market, the Korean immigrants are able to view the situation differently? To think outside of the box, so to speak, due to lack of initial involvement with the industry? Steve Luster, who works at Clintex Laboratories, a black hair care manufacturer and distributor says that he doesn’t “blame the Koreans for anything” and stresses that more should be done to “educate blacks on economics and better business practices” as opposed to relying on the government or even other blacks for help. His comments seem a bit conservative when considered in conjunction with the tone of the rest of Black Hair, but they nevertheless offer a much overlooked option in race-based conflict: self reflection.

If there could be a focus-shit from blame to empowerment with regard to strengthening the presence of black business owners for black products, there might be a more favorable outcome. Those working on this issue seem to have oversimplified the origins of the conflict in addition to holding on to an unrealistic view of capitalism. Maybe I am being too hard on them and blame serves a purpose here, but in the longrun, I don’t find it to be the smartest option. In this instance, looking inside should be the first step to making a change.

But now that I’ve presented a bit from the “other side” of the conflict, I’m interested in your thoughts. If you haven’t done so already, check out the film Black Hair on youtube.com (parts listed below) and add your thoughts.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Update: Part One (arson attempt made on Korean-owned store)
Update: Part Two