Free the Loc(k)s: Why Is Walmart Locking up Black Hair Products?

African American hair care products in a locked glass case at Walmart

Picture it — wash day and I’m out of conditioner, low on shampoo, and in need of curling custard. So, I head to my local Walmart to stock up on wash-day essentials. Imagine walking in and finding that the products for your hair type are locked up. Behind glass. Not accessible to customers without a key and direct oversight of a store employee. That was my experience when I visited a Walmart located in California’s Bay Area. 

The products for Black hair, African American hair, natural hair, textured hair, whatever you want to call it, were under lock and key. Meanwhile, a few steps away all the other hair care products were on open shelves for people to touch, read the labels, smell (let’s be real, people do it), and go.

Hair Care Products at Walmart by Marissa Teachable Moments

Shopping While Black

In the past, shopping while Black might have entailed being followed around by a store employee…usually at a distance so it wasn’t too obvious. Or, maybe it meant walking into a store without being greeted by an employee. For some, it looked like getting to the register, pulling out a credit card, and being asked for identification while other shoppers didn’t have to do the same. 

Now, shopping while Black means the products that cater to your needs are locked up. It means finding an employee to unlock the case. Once unlocked, it means being watched like a hawk while you shop because you can only remove one product at a time. Or, it means feeling rushed into choosing a product. This describes my shopping experience in a society that people claim is post-racial.

The Products for “Your People”

Unable to shake the feeling that came with shopping while Black, I decided to say something. I asked a Walmart associate why all the Black hair care products were locked up. She chuckled and said, “It’s not just the products for your people.” 

Your people? Talk about adding insult to injury. The Walmart associate proceeded to say that they’re multicultural products.

In my incredulity, I posted this exchange along with pictures online. A friend who identifies as White shared that she uses these products, which made me realize that these products are also used by people who do not identify as Black. However, it is my understanding that Black people use these products in higher quantities than people from other racial backgrounds.

The Power of Black Dollars

In fact, according to a Nielsen Insights Report, Black consumers spent $54.4 million on “Ethnic hair & beauty aids” in 2017. The total spent in that category was $63.5 million. That means Black consumers were responsible for 86% of the spending in that category. 

To be thorough, I conducted online research. Walmart’s website has a category called textured hair care. Subcategories include: wavy, curly, straight and relaxed, kinky, coily. Looking at the models, it appears that according to Walmart, “textured” might be synonymous with Black.

Textured Hair

In addition to the models on Walmart’s website, the brands listed in the textured section corroborate the idea that these are indeed products for African American people. Companies in this section include Shea Moisture, Carol’s Daughter, Dark & Lovely, SoftSheen Carson, and Pantene Gold Series. Now people may see Pantene and think, “That’s not a Black product.” Well, according to Pantene’s website, the Gold Series Collection is designed for “women with relaxed, natural, or transitioning hair. This superior care and styling line was created by Black PhD’s and scientists who understand the unique needs of textured hair.” Pantene’s description coupled with the models on their website leads me to believe that textured, natural, and transitioning hair might be code for Black.

Pantene Gold SeriesPantene Gold Series

All that to say, I feel comfortable referring to these products as Black hair care products as they have been historically used by, and perhaps were even created for, Black people. Furthermore, the men and women pictured on the products’ packaging present as Black. 

The Implications

Back to my experience at Walmart. The associate had yet to adequately answer my question about why these particular products were locked up. She said they’re locked up because they get damaged and people smell them. I directed her attention to lotion on a nearby aisle that had been pumped out. Why wasn’t that also locked up?

Appearing to grow impatient with my questions, she asked what I wanted to buy. At this point, I wanted nothing because I was beyond upset. Instead of selecting an item to purchase, I embarked on a quest to find a manager. 

In the midst of retelling my story to an associate manager she exclaimed, “It’s not racist,” then proceeded to inform me that the store manager is African American too. My word, where do I start?

Saying the practice isn’t racist because the manager is African American is like saying someone with a Black friend can’t do or say racist things. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. 

Now, let’s take some time to unpack the word racist, which the associate manager introduced into this conversation. Locking up products that are largely used by a specific group of people is a practice that’s rooted in racial discrimination. By locking up these specific products, the implication is that people who purchase these products steal. My hunch is that African American people buy these specific products at a higher rate than people from other backgrounds. Therefore, locking up these products perpetuates stereotypes about a specific group of people. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…it’s probably racist.

This practice serves as an example of the microaggressions that Black people have to deal with on a daily basis. It may seem small to some, just a policy to Walmart, but for the people who have to deal with it, it adds up and can really take a toll on one’s health. 

It seems like acts of racial discrimination are happening time and time again. Between washing our hair, waiting for a friend at Starbucks, and barbecuing, African American bodies and the products we buy are being policed. When will it end? We just want to wash our hair, drink our coffee, and barbecue in peace.

Walmart’s Response

Not satisfied with Walmart’s response the night of the incident, I contacted corporate. A representative said products could be locked up due to theft in the area or a state law. When I inquired about the state law, she admitted that she wasn’t familiar with any law. Calling corporate proved to be futile.

Eventually, I heard from a different assistant manager at the original location who shared that once the store receives more glass cases, the whole department will eventually be locked up. I pointed out the fact that there were empty shelves in the glass cases that they currently have, but she did not have a response.

The assistant manager proceeded to say that the products being locked up is “an inconvenience” and that she uses some of those products since, “I’m Portugese, Hawaiian, English, Island, Dutch. I’m a random. So we’re not saying it’s a certain race or anything.” The fact that she was trying to justify the behavior by identifying was infuriating. In my attempt to engage in perspective-taking, I can hear what she’s saying about using these products. However, when people on the boxes look like you, it becomes more than an inconvenience. As a Black person, seeing a reflection of yourself on the products that are locked up is infuriating, humiliating, disheartening, and insert any other adjective that can convey the hurt and pain you feel. 

According to the assistant manager, products are locked up based on reports of what is high theft and it’s not necessarily about shrinkage for the store. When I asked for the numbers to corroborate that, she said the manager would have those statistics. She then shared that the manager is also African American and he gets approached by people who say, “You of all people should know better.” How many times are Walmart employees going to use this man as an excuse to engage in racist practices? The fact that the store manager shares my racial background does not make it okay and it definitely does not erase the pain.

Rule or Exception

The curious sociologist in me wanted to know if this Walmart was the rule or an exception to it. So, I visited several other locations. Black, or textured, hair products were locked up in three other Bay Area locations. On the other side of the aisle, other products were on open shelves. The same was the case when I visited a Washington, D.C. location; now we’re crossing state lines.

When I strolled to the hair care aisle in one Northern California store, I was a bit surprised by what I found. The hair care aisle had no Black hair care products. At first glance, this store seemed to be lacking representation. Then, I ventured to the cosmetics section. Like some other locations I’ve visited, the cosmetics section has its own cash register, which is monitored by a Walmart employee. It was in this section that I found a shelf labeled “Multicultural Hair Care.” The products were on an open shelf, but located in a section that is being policed in a different way. Perhaps this is Walmart’s take on separate but equal.

Multicultural hair care section at Walmart

So, I ask you, is the Walmart that I originally visited the rule or an exception to the rule? At this point, I’ve visited eight stores and counting. I even ventured outside of the state. Of the eight, two had all hair care products on open shelves in the hair care aisle. The remaining six had questionable practices. It looks to me like this may be the rule — a rule that is rooted in racial discrimination and implicit bias.

Call to Action

Walmart, we have a pattern. Black hair care products are being locked up and it’s not an isolated incident or due to a state law that no one can tell me more about. I have yet to receive an adequate response about Walmart’s practice of locking up products that are used by people with a certain hair type. To recap, we’ve heard that it’s because these particular products get damaged, sniffed, and stolen. At least settle on one answer.

Readers, I need your help. Please snap a few shots of the hair care aisle at your local Walmart. Please tag MarissaTeachableMoments, Walmart, and WalmartHelp in your photos on social media. Additionally please contact Walmart Corporate if you see certain products in glass cases at your local Walmart. Finally, please consider shopping elsewhere.

To Walmart, I have one thing left to say: Let my people products go!

~ Marissa