Nova Scotia·Atlantic Voice

Coming Home: The fight for Black hair care in Nova Scotia

Samantha Dixon Slawter owns Styles By SD, a hair salon in Dartmouth, N.S. On top of being a hairdresser and business owner, she describes herself as a "Black beauty advocate."

How changes in beauty education could mean a more inclusive industry

Samantha Dixon Slawter, a Black beauty advocate, owns Styles By SD, a hair salon in Dartmouth, N.S. (Leslie Amminson/CBC)

Black beauty services have not always been easy to access in Nova Scotia, and that has one woman pushing for change to make the beauty industry more inclusive.

Samantha Dixon Slawter owns Styles By SD, a hair salon in Dartmouth. On top of being a hairdresser and business owner, she describes herself as a "Black beauty advocate."

"I think that Black beauty has not been given the ears or the eyes of people in government or in organizations who should be looking at the Black consumer and have not been paying any attention," she said in an interview. "So for me it's important."

Dixon Slawter said the lack of services has its roots in hairdressing schools, which provide limited instruction on working with Black and textured hair types. If students don't learn these skills in schools, they don't know how to do them when they start practising their trade. That leaves Black Nova Scotians with few salons that can meet their needs.

A client gets her hair done at Dixon Slawter's salon in Dartmouth. (Leslie Amminson/CBC)

Learning in salon

Dixon Slawter is calling on the Cosmetology Association of Nova Scotia to allow hairdressing students to get their licences through in-salon training. Before hairdressing was recognized as a trade in the province in 1995, stylists could get their licence by studying 1,200 hours in salon.

According to Dixon Slawter, in-salon training gave Black students the opportunity to learn from Black hairdressers. But, without this option, the only choice for students is to attend an approved hairdressing program, which comes at a higher price and offers little training in Black and textured hair.

"They thought that apprenticeship wasn't the way to go and that people weren't being trained properly," Dixon Slawter said. "But that's not a good excuse because, well, you're not getting trained properly to do what? Because now if you go to hairdressing school you're not getting trained to do Black hair."

Apart from owning her own salon, Dixon Slawter says she hopes to open her own school where she can teach Black hairdressing. (Submitted by Samantha Dixon Slawter)

Celebrating a rich history

There have always been barriers to Black hair care in the province. But there have also been pioneers who found ways to offer those services when no one else was doing it.

Viola Desmond was one of Nova Scotia's first Black hair stylists to offer professional services. She also owned and operated a school, Viola Desmond's School of Beauty Culture, where she trained other women in Black hair care.

"It makes you feel small," said Dixon Slawter. "I mean really it makes you feel small! Because she did it back then, when there was so much else she had to deal with. I mean we deal with some of that stuff now, subtly. So in a way I also feel accomplished."

Dixon Slawter with her aunt, Natherine Willis, the first Black woman to hold a master instructor's licence in hairdressing. (Submitted by Samantha Dixon Slawter)

There were many other pioneers of Black hair care in the province. Among them is Samantha's aunt, Natherine Willis, who was the first Black woman to hold a master instructor's licence in hairdressing.

Willis did her hairdressing course in Nova Scotia, but travelled to the United States to learn more about Black hair.

"You couldn't learn Black hair here," she said in an interview. "The stuff they used, it wasn't for Black hair. If we hadn't gone to the states and learned more about Black hair we wouldn't have learned, not in Halifax."

Meet the Nova Scotia woman pushing for equal access to beauty. 26:10

Moving forward

Dixon Slawter has submitted an application to the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency to have Black Beauty Culture Hair Innovator recognized as a trade in Nova Scotia. She's hoping this will lead to better education within the community.

On top of that, she said one of her goals has been to open her own school where she can teach Black hairdressing. She's busy designing a curriculum in the hopes of making her dream a reality.

"One of the things I always wanted to do was have a hairdressing school, and have the people who actually went to that school open up their own salons," she said. "So eventually I'd like to see more beauty salons that cater to Black people in Nova Scotia."

Clients Martha Grant and Donalda MacIsaac at the Styles by SD salon. (Leslie Amminson/CBC)

In an interview, Cosmetology Association president Dana Sharkey said she's aware students have not been adequately trained to work with Black and textured hair. She said the association has made strides over the past few years and will continue to develop a more inclusive curriculum.

The Apprenticeship Agency of Nova Scotia confirmed it has received Dixon Slawter's application to have Black Beauty Culture Hair Innovator recognized as a trade in Nova Scotia. It is reviewing the application.

Tune in to Atlantic Voice this Sunday, Jan. 17 at 8:30 a.m. AT to listen to the documentary.

This story is part of a CBC project entitled Being Black in Canada, which highlights the stories and experiences of Black Canadians, from anti-Black racism to success stories Black communities can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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