Is Hotel Shampoo Kind of Racist?

Race Manners: A live Facebook Q&A tackles this question. Plus: Do people understand what “racism” actually means?


Editor’s note: We took Race Manners to Facebook today, where The Root Associate Editor Jenée Desmond-Harris engaged in a live Q&A. One reader took serious issue with the toiletries offered by major hotel chains, going so far as to call the selections a “microaggression” against black people. Another exchange tacked a timeless question: What does “racism” really mean (and why don’t people get it)? Read a partial transcript here:

Don Mullen: Why don’t America’s hotels provide hair products for black as well as white hair? Is there a way to get them to correct this “microaggression”?

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Thanks for your question.

I thought about the issue of hotel toiletries when I was writing the Race Manners column that answered the question, “Is Using Lotion a Black Thing?” In my opinion, the tiny moisturizer that most hotels provide is very clearly not designed for those who want or need to use it on their entire body (read: most black people).

But off the top of my head, I’m not so sure about the shampoo and conditioner selection as a “microaggression.”

Here’s why: I would argue that hotels tend to provide very basic hair-care products for people who don’t have any particular hair needs and/or just plain don’t care about their hair aside from making sure it’s clean. (I mean, really, what other kind of person would just lay themselves at the mercy of Marriott and take whatever scent and level of conditioning was provided, never having tried the products before?)

Really, no one who needs or wants anything special for their hair—black or white—is particularly well served by hotel products. That’s why it seems to me that most people (especially most people with more than an inch of hair) pack what they need or prefer while traveling.

Have you noticed that all this stuff comes in carry-on size now? It’s because everyone needs it, regardless of what may be sitting on the hotel bathroom sink alongside the mouthwash. No hotel I’ve been to has provided anything for hair styling (gel, leave-in conditioner, hair spray, pomade, whatever), which is really where I think we begin to see racial differences in product needs.

So my guess is that there are probably plenty of low-hair-maintenance people of all races who take what the hotel offers and use it without a second thought. Meanwhile, the rest of us, if anything, take the products home and put them in our own guest bathrooms (so visitors can ignore them in favor of the products designed for their particular hair type that they brought with them).

Steve Corley: I find that folks don’t understand the original definition of “racist” or “racism” and try to apply the terms to nonwhites. If we can get everyone to understand the “intrinsically superior to other races” part of the definition and how racism was enforced by discrimination and apartheid, then these conservative folks may begin to understand that there can be no reverse racism, etc.