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What the Nail Industry Can Do to Fight Racism

by Wendy Sy (Leafgel USA)

Black Lives Matter is not just a trend, it’s a movement. Here, we discuss ways people can come together to make a meaningful change towards anti-racism in the nail industry and beyond.

Tina Zavala of Popstar Nails Black Barbie nail art

As human beings, nearly all of us are born with fingernails and toenails. It’s natural, just like the color of our skin—which may vary from person to person. So, why does the latter stem so much controversy?

Systemic racism has long been an issue in the world, one that may have seemed too taboo to talk about and often avoided. On May 25, 2020, the unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and many cases before him, caused a shift in social consciousness that led to increased awareness around the Black Lives Matter movement. With the combined efforts of protests and social media postings, it seems the world is finally starting to listen to voices that need to be heard, but that only scratches the surface of the work that still needs to be done.

Here, we spoke with nail artists across America who share their points of view on the topic of racism and how we can work together as a society to create lasting change.

Understand the History

To truly fight for change, it’s important to understand the why behind it. Racism spans back decades and has been written about in articles and books, recorded in documentaries, and ingrained on the minds of many who have experienced it firsthand. By taking the time to educate ourselves, we can learn the context and significance behind the issue.

“Way back in the 80s and 90s, [Black] women wore crazy designs on their nails and people from other cultures would look down on it, saying ‘it’s ghetto’ and now it’s the trendy thing to do. When you slap that same design on a white person, it's magically accepted and it’s okay,” says Mimi D, a Black nail artist based in Los Angeles, California, who works with top brands and celebrities. “I don't think people put two and two together—how systemic racism would trickle down to nails.”

The documentary Nailed It by Vietnamese filmmaker Adele Free Pham delves deeper into history. Available to stream for free online on the World Channel through July 6, 2020, the one-hour film highlights the impact of Tippi Hedren, a white actress who, in 1975, did humanitarian work in Northern California. Upon running a program for 20 refugee Vietnamese women who admired her nails, she brought in her manicurist, Dusty Coots, to teach them how to do manicures, and many eventually trained to get licenses.

In an interview with NPR, Pham says, "I really believe all fashion comes from Black culture. So I always wondered—this was another reason why I made the film—how did these nail salons get to the Black neighborhoods, right...And that's how I came to know the story of Mantrap.” Through her curiosity about how the Mantrap salons formed, she found that one of the co-founding women is Vietnamese, and the other is African American. Pham believes this was when the Vietnamese started in the nail salon industry, bringing the price down to cater to working-class women, and Black women brought artistry to the designs.

Nail art by Mimi D

Stop the Stereotyping

Many minorities within the nail industry have felt some sort of racial stereotype throughout their careers.

Tina Zavala, the owner of Popstar Nails in Louisville, Kentucky, who is of Puerto Rican and Jamaican descent, experienced racism at a studio she previously rented. “The place was predominantly filled with white hairstylists as far as other people renting rooms. When my customers of color would come into the building, they were not greeted with a warm welcome and automatically sent to me to get their nails done solely based on their skin color,” she says. “The owner of the property complained about the smell and ended up not renewing my lease due to it. We got vents and did everything we could to help it and the hairstylist products smelled just as bad.”

When Zavala first started in her career, she faced another kind of racism: “I worked in a Vietnamese salon and some customers did not trust me to do their nails because I am not Asian.”

Regina Paek, known as @rawrrgina, an independent nail artist based in San Francisco, California, has experienced stereotyping as a Korean American. “When I worked in a salon, a lot of people would assume I was Vietnamese or that I couldn’t speak English very well. When I would talk to them, they would say things like ‘Wow, your English is so good’,” says Paek. She also notes how stereotyping has, in a way, helped her career. "I do feel like because I am Korean, a lot of people assume my work would be of higher quality.”

Victoria Suzuki, a Korean nail artist and owner of Vixkiss Nail Studio based in La Mirada, California, agrees. “I feel as though clients think Asians are good at [paying attention to] the little details. Therefore, they prefer Asians when it comes to nail art services.” Paek continues, “Korea and Japan have a really strong nail industry and people are willing to pay more for that.” Paek and Suzuki’s rates correlate with their experiences as they have been trained and use quality products, but stereotyping isn’t fair: what if it were another nail tech who is Korean and doesn’t have that kind of expertise?

Over in Beverly Hills, Samantha Pasaye, a Latinx (Mexican) nail artist and founder of Nail Art Fairy based in Beverly Hills, California, experiences stereotyping constantly at work. “I get all the time ‘Oh, you’re not Asian’ and ‘I’m so glad you speak English’. It rubs me the wrong way because the Asian community does more than just nails, and it's not fair to assume someone of another race, like me, isn’t supposed to be in this field.”

Stereotyping is simply unjust and how to prevent the act—whether implicit or unconscious—is to get educated, be mindful of assumptions, and see people as individuals.

Nail art by Tina Zavala of Popstar Nails

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

One classic case of cultural appropriation—or in other words, adopting elements of another culture without showing understanding or respect for it—is with nail art derived from the Black community.

In 1988, Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo Jo), a Black athlete, broke the 100-meter world record at the U.S. Olympics track and field trials. The Chicago Tribune emphasized her score as much as her nail style, noting the design as “4-inch, curved, tiger-striped fingernails”. At the time, bold nail designs like this were considered strange and unordinary compared to the French manicures and pastel colors the white community often wore. Nowadays, the type of designs similar to Flo Jo's are often falsely given credit to white celebrities and considered on-trend.

“A lot of clients will ask for nail art inspired by other cultures' art, especially if they’re going on a trip to that specific place,” says Paek, who acknowledges many designs including the “pierced” nail trend started in Black culture. “I don’t see it as a problem as long as we give proper credit and make sure we are appreciating the art and culture of the origin.”

Miscrediting, or lack thereof, happens time and time again in the nail industry—and is another factor that needs to be changed.

“Most work done in shoots for publications do not credit the nail artist which makes it even harder to be a person of color in the industry,” says Pasaye. “Work and looks get stolen by major brands all the time without any compensation. It hasn’t happened to me personally but it's happening all the time and that’s not okay. People of color are usually underpaid compared to other artists and only hired when it's a special campaign on a culture trend.”

Nail art by Mimi D

Use Social Media as a Tool, Then Follow Through

On June 2, 2020, Instagram was flooded with black squares posted by users in honor of Blackout Tuesday. The initiative #TheShowMustBePaused was started by two music executives to pause business operations in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, among others, whose lives were taken by the police. The trend latched on as others followed but the movement itself caused drama. Many users posted with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM which essentially took up space, defeating the purpose to amplify Black voices. Although many helpful resources on anti-racism have been and continue to be posted, real change also needs to happen in real life.

Mimi D adds, “Moving forward, my prayer is that we start to get the recognition that we should have gotten years ago. I hope that more people who are allies who claim to be allies do their part outside of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and not just posting things like ‘I stand with you’”.

So, what can people do in real life to support anti-racism?

There are many ways to take action, such as—but not limited to—referring a creative from the Black community for a job they are qualified for, taking time to listen, learn, and read about the topic, donating to an organization you have researched and truly stand behind, shopping Black-owned businesses, and keeping up with these efforts consistently.

"It is documented that black women make less on average than most of their Asian and white counterparts,” says Kia Stewart, founder of wellness nontoxic studio Lux K, nail educator and celebrity manicurist based in Brooklyn, New York. “We also contribute directly to fashion and advertisement influence and see no return as creatives, it is also highlighted the scarcity of opportunity in our own industry and the list can go on.”

Nail art by Kia Stewart of Lux K

“Change in policy is needed, a shift from brands we openly support need to see us. Having classes led by black artists, speaking about our culture, and art expression from our communities with our voices is key. This time feels somewhat trendy, but making strides by giving credit for our contributions, extending paid partnerships, and making us visible is the new protocol. I myself will not become blindsided by small favors we deserve to excel as a people. I am proud of brands like Leafgel having the conversation, and being passionate about a shift. Arigato!"

Get Creative With Ways to Make a Difference

Maja Hanson, a white fine artist working with nail tips and pigments as a subject matter, has never experienced stereotyping or cultural appropriation before, however, she is taking action in support of Black Lives Matter. “As an artist myself, I feel it is a personal responsibility to take a stand in matters of social justice,” says Hanson.

Hanson partnered with a Los Angeles-based clothing company, Pleasures, to create a T-shirt with an image of a sculpture made by her late father, Duane Hanson, in 1967 entitled Policeman and Rioter. “The project raised $14,000 for @blackvisionscollective and The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, which directly impacts my immediate community,” she says.

Leafgel recently announced scholarships to recognize the talent of Black nail artists and have selected two recipients: Sam Lofton and Mimi D, who were provided Leafgel Premium educator training courses, an opportunity to take exams to become a Leafgel educator and receive complimentary products needed for the course.

To create long-lasting change, Leafgel is planning to grant these scholarships yearly, rather than a one-time giveaway. Another project in the works is to sponsor select free online and in-person seminars for Black nail techs in areas where high standard Japanese nail education classes cannot be afforded and connect students to salons for employment. As salons begin to open back up post COVID-19 lockdown, there’s no better time than now to diversify the workplace and implement new initiatives to encourage inclusion.

Zavala puts it simply, “Treat everyone equally and just have a kind heart.”

Above all—no matter our race and culture—we have one link in common: our humanity.

It’s up to our society to take action towards meaningful, lasting change towards anti-racism. And we need all hands on deck to make it happen.

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