With Limited Options, New Hampshire Students of Color Improvise Hair Care
It's 6:30 in the morning. Hamida Hassan is scrolling through Instagram while Kenchael Emadamerho styles her hair into box braids.
"So basically you grab a piece of extension depending on how thick they want the braid to be. And wrap it around her actual natural hair. And then I would just braid it."
Emadamerho demonstrated the braiding process, which she said would take about six hours.
She is 16 and a student at Central High School in Manchester. She's saving up for driver's ed by doing hair for other black women like Hassan, who is a junior at the University of New Hampshire.
To make this appointment, Hassan had to find a ride from Durham to Manchester, get time off work, and wake up before dawn . It was worth it, though. She’s presenting at a research conference this weekend, and she needs to look professional. That's something none of the nine salons in Durham can provide for her.
"A couple of my white friends go to those salons and they do a pretty good job for them," Hassan said. "So they just assume that they do a good job for everybody else, I guess."
They don't. Selina Taylor, a former student and current student advisor at UNH, learned that the hard way.
"They really jacked up my hair, really made it look bad," Taylor said, of a salon in New Hampshire where she once tried to get a haircut. "So the trust is not there."
New Hampshire's college campuses are much more diverse than the state population at large. But when students of color arrive here, many find that there's no one, for miles around, is willing or able to cut and style their hair.
The need for diverse hair care is so severe at New Hampshire's colleges and unviersities that many have programs that bring in barbers from out-of-state to cut Black and Latino students' hair a few times a year. But the barbers can only provide hair cuts. For braids, twists, weaves, and otehr more complicated styles, students are still on their own.
And if a 45-minute trip to Manchester for a hair appointment sounds like a pain, Taylor drives all the way to Brooklyn, New York to get her hair done.
"I may come back from New York to New Hampshire saying, wow, I look great, I feel great," Taylor said. "But the reality sets in that what I had to do, just to feel like I belong, I had to go four and a half hours away from my residence to get that."
And access to products for textured hair is a whole other problem.
Raleigh Nesbitt, a senior at Dartmouth College, says that the CVS in downtown Hanover carries a wider selection of Black hair care products now than it did when she was a freshmen.
But it's still limited, and much more expensive than at the stores in Pensacola, Florida, where she's from. She also has trouble finding makeup shades that match her skin tone.
Nesbitt has done a lot of adapting since moving to Hanover. She buys beauty products online. She's learned, by watching Youtube videos, how to cut her own hair.
She admits that none of this is ideal. But she doesn't let it bother her much because it's temporary. When asked if she thinks about staying in New Hampshire, Nesbitt laughed.
"No. I think that the area is really beautiful, it just sort of seems like, as a black person, I'm left out of the beauty sections of these stores. Whether it's hair products or foundation shades that stop at, like, caramel."
Hassan and Emadamerho, who met up for that early morning braiding session, grew up in Manchester, and they feel the same way. Even Taylor, who’s lived in the state for the past 15 years and has a good job at UNH, says she thinks about leaving all the time.
And something all of these women stressed: it’s about so much more than the inconvenience and expense.
"Living in a community that does not have the products and the thigns that I need is almost devaluing," Taylor said. "It just perpetuates this culture of non-belonging. So this issue is not just about hair. This is about Black and brown people not having the opportunity to thrive in their permenant residence."
In other words, why stick around in a place where you can barely get a haircut?