A Conversation with Keya Neal, Founder of Texture Versus Race

Beauty salons remain some of the most racially segregated spaces in the United States.

One reason is rooted in the education that hairstylists receive before they even start their careers. Cosmetology training tends to be divided between textured and non-textured hair, with straighter/ finer hair as the mainstream default.

With most licensed cosmetologists entering the workforce knowing how to care for either “Black hair” or “white hair,” salons in turn tend to divide among racial lines as well.

“This was a huge mistake on our parts,” says salon educator Keya Neal, founder of the Kolour Kulture inclusive haircolor training program. “Not because we created the situation, but because we allowed it to exist that way on our watch.”

Neal started the Texture Versus Race (TVR) Collaborative in 2018 to address this disparity in the beauty industry. TVR offers technical education for all hair textures, along with DEI training, business coaching, and other resources for stylists and salon owners wanting to expand their inclusivity and diversity.

American Salon sat down with Neal to discuss Texture Versus Race ­— why it began, what it’s accomplished, and how it’s evolving to address what Neal calls the “new level of segregation” in the beauty industry.

Keya Neal of the Texture Versus Race Collaborative
(Keya Neal)

 

AS: Let’s talk about  your experiences as a working stylist and what led up to your decision to create Texture Versus Race.

KN: It was a decision, but it didn’t come lightly. It was the answer to the sum of my experience.

I went to an all-Black cosmetology school, Dudley Cosmetology University in North Carolina. They created Black culture around the beauty industry, and we learned at a high level to work in an excellent way. Education was at their core.

I learned how to do Black hair, of course, and when I opened my own salon my clientele reflected that. But I always wanted to learn how to do everybody’s hair.

Even when I owned a salon, I worked double time at a Hair Cuttery to learn how to cut bangs. There was a woman who worked with my father, who doubled as a salon assistant. She said, if you teach me how to do Black hair, I’ll teach you how to do white hair. And we did that.

I was able to do anyone’s hair, but not everyone came to my salon. White people would sometimes come to the door, and they might run back out unless I could catch them fast enough. And some of them just came in and said listen, can somebody here do my hair?

 

That’s the approximate experience that people of color have going into (white) salons — thinking no one here knows how to do my hair.

It’s the exact experience. It’s just that it’s so much heavier on the one side.

Ultimately, I did that for 15 years, then I got married and moved to Maryland. And that’s when things fast forwarded for me.

I was a colorist, but I was not at the level of colorist I wanted to be. I wanted to be more multicultural, so I went to work at an all-white salon.

It was hard. They weren’t used to me and I wasn’t used to them, and the only thing that led me to stay was I really wanted to learn how to do everybody’s hair. I was trying to be a master of color, but I ended up learning more about the social dynamic.

Being the only Black person there — working with people who didn’t understand my culture, who didn’t understand me — made me be the spokesperson for all Black people and made me defensive of my existence every day.

And they liked me. I’m not saying they didn’t. But someone said this to me the other day: “Justice is complicated. Sometimes you can be doing the right thing the wrong way and still be wrong.” And I thought that was very powerful.

They liked me fine, but because they didn’t know how to not be micro-aggressive, they didn’t know how not to be harmful.

They didn’t know how to protect me. They didn’t know — even in their rightness of having me — that there were a lot of things wrong.

Teaching a color class in 2015.
Leading a haircolor class in 2015.  (Keya Neal)

And so the burden was on you to teach everyone there.

Absolutely. And I didn’t know how to teach them. I just knew I dealt with a lot of racist people.

Surprisingly, even with all that, I worked there for 10 years.

I learned a lot going to classes and working for other brands. I started working with another color company. A very smart man owned it, and he taught me how to master color.

My mentor was Misael Aponte. I met him at the American Board of Certified Hair Colorists (ABCH) around 2011, when I took his class for the first time. And I took it over and over and over.

He understands color from a scientific space. It was like getting a Master’s in color. Using that to leverage what I knew about texture and different hair types made me wildly effective in that realm.

I immersed myself in education and I became my own independent brand in 2015. I developed a color curriculum. That’s how Kolour Kulture came into being.

The curriculum could work with all hair types, and it was inclusive from the beginning. The Kolour Kulture curriculum says that if the fabric does this, or if the hair has these qualities, this is how you adjust your formula.

So it wasn’t about if the client is Black or white or Asian. It was about: what is the hair doing? And I developed a multicultural audience very quickly. We took Kolour Kulture around to hair shows and trade shows. To this day, the International Beauty Show has some of our best color classes. They’re always packed.

Neal with her mentor, color educator Mizael Aponte.
With master colorist Misael Aponte. (Keya Neal)

I decided to get certified by the ABCH. I was maybe one point from being the top score for their testing. And they asked me to come teach at their summit. I was all geeked about it! Like wow, I get to teach it.

When that happened, the salon where I worked told me, “We want you to teach us how to do Black hair.”

It burst a bubble when they said that. I'd worked way too hard for them to reduce me to just teaching how to do Black hair. And that’s when Texture Versus Race was born.

Because that was my answer. Why don’t you know how to do texture? If you’re in the top 1 percent and you’re supposed to be the experts in color, why don’t you know how to do texture?

After much prayer and deliberation with the Lord, the answer was a class that would be called Texture Versus Race. It was just supposed to be a class!

The marker was that hair is a fabric, not a race. Is it about the hair, or the person in the chair? That’s how I started every class — with an understanding of how segregated the beauty industry was, and how we need to acknowledge that.

We discussed how to break the mold of being able to talk to each other and be in the same space and not be afraid to ask questions and to lean into each other. We had everybody ask questions.

It was a great moment and we knew we had to keep it going.

This turned into a group with 2500 members. Then it turned into a summit. We all got into a room and had social conversations. Trying to understand emotional intelligence around diversifying this alliance and our minds.

The first summit was in 2019. And it has snowballed since then into what it is today.

When George Floyd was murdered, because our boat was already in the ocean, the tide elevated us to be at the forefront of the conversation.

So we provided a place where people who wanted to have this conversation could do so in a safe space. And by that I don’t mean not uncomfortable. This is a safe space to ask questions and to walk out your healthy curiosity for each other, for texture, for cultural gain, cultural competence. To gain understanding, to debunk biases, to shred stereotypes.

A conversation at the TVR Summit, 2021.
A conversation at the TVR Summit in 2021. (Texture Versus Race)

Did you know it was going to achieve all that when you started it?

I did not know, and I resisted it. I absolutely resisted it. It just evolved.

Here’s the thing. I had so much to contribute to the conversation because of my lived experiences. I wasn’t even pulling from anyone or anywhere else. There’s nothing you see on my page — not a soundbite, not a podcast, a post, a blog — that I can’t say, I absolutely experienced this. And here’s how we solved this, or here’s how we should move forward.

I think that’s why God had me at that salon for so long. So I could learn for a job I didn’t even know I was about to get. Because I kept saying, “why am I here?” For a long time, I’d come home angry because of the discrimination and racial injustice and the micro-aggressions.

It wasn’t just the people who worked there — they liked me fine. But they couldn’t help it either.

I was doing one technique where I tied the hair down, and one woman said, “you look like Aunt Jemima.” And she laughed. I said, “I’m going to explain to you why I do this particular technique,” and I did.

And she said again, “but you look like Aunt Jemima.” And I said — say it again and we’re going to step outside and have a different level of conversation about it.

Because now you’re being offensive. It’s not funny.

I could go on all day. They’d be staring at my clients or walk over and touch their hair, just put their hands in there. They couldn’t stop themselves from staring. My clients would get so crazy about it.

And maybe for the last three, four years I started coming in before everybody and staying late because my clients didn’t want to be bothered with all that. They would request times when the salon would be empty.

 

They just want to get their hair done without feeling like they’re on display.

Right. And when I posted about that phenomenon — the “white gaze” — oh, the comments. I pinned that post because I want everybody to know just what state the industry is in.

For people to take that post and turn it into something else — this is why we still have this problem in salons. Because you refuse to acknowledge that maybe you made a misstep; that there’s something you need to address.

I find that when you tell white people what they can and can’t do, they get very indignant. Anything I share is fine, as long as it’s not “don’t do this.” The minute you start saying don’t do something, then it’s immediate: I’ll do what I want. If you don’t like it, go back to Africa. If you don’t like it, move to another salon.

It’s tough.

But the salon helped me develop a muscle. I went to a church that said, “you’ve got to learn to love beyond your preferences.” I took that to heart. It would say “Destroy ignorance with knowledge,” and that’s what I set my sights on.

If no one tells you, how will you know? If I never tell you you’re being discriminatory or racist or offensive, how will you know?

For the most part, I might meet someone with an adverse response to me and I’ll say, tell me why this offends you so bad. Tell me why this bothers you. Are you willing to listen to another perspective? Let’s have the conversation.

The majority of people have good intentions to understand. Now, if you’re coming at me and just want to be racially offensive, I’m not having it.

But in the realm of learning — if someone says to me, “I want to do texture, but I don’t know where to start. I’m afraid I’m going to say the wrong thing. Can you help me?” Yes. I am your person.

Neal being honored by Intercoiffure America Canada.
Being honored by Intercoiffure America Canada in 2019. (Keya Neal)

The salon where you used to work still doesn’t have a very diverse culture, does it?

No. But I learned a lot there. They gave what they could. They let me learn and they let me learn my way. This is what I liked about them. They let me learn as much as I could hold.

This was a very white, mainstream salon and got all the benefits in the industry. The distribution houses, the brands, the companies, the education, the access.

I learned a lot of things they didn’t even know they were teaching me. I learned what type of access they had.

I had a measure of comparison for Black salons. We didn’t know distribution houses are giving away free backbar because you have an account. I didn’t know that if you bought color and didn’t like it, they would buy it back and put something else in. Never, never in my life had I experienced that.

We didn’t know that you’re getting free education once or twice a month from brands. They don’t go to Black salons and do that. Still don’t. Hear me when I say that: Still don’t.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I had owned a very popular and successful salon.

 

One way to equalize the industry is to require cosmetology schools to include textured hair in their curriculum. There’s an ongoing effort to do that state by state through the Texture Education Collective. How is Texture Versus Race involved in that?

TVR is kind of like the elbow of it all because we work to support organizations that have boots on the ground. I like working with the Professional Beauty Association because they have someone who’s very well versed in that, who's immersed in getting those policies out there.

Texture Versus Race was one of the founding organizations. We were there when they wrote the first policy draft. We do whatever we can to bring awareness to it, share it on our platforms. We’re a resource to them and hub for education.

People are still trying to figure out how it’s going to work. How are they going to make it mandatory, how are they going to structure the schools that now have to adhere to this law? One thing we do is help the officials who need to figure out how to make it work.

We support, we provide education, we provide resources and opportunity. We push anything that works toward the greater good.

Hands-on color education.
Hands-on education with the TVR Collective. (Texture Versus Race)

Tell me about the Texture Versus Race Pavilion at the upcoming International Beauty Show-Las Vegas. What is it and what will it have to offer?

Texture Versus Race is in alignment with people and brands who have like minds. The TVR Pavilion is a space to highlight these brands. We’re creating sort of a Mecca for them at the event.

We will be there with five brands and their founders: Aymen and Leah Eldabli with Blonde Solutions, Autumn Yarborough with NU Standard, Stephanie Luster with Essations, Verniece Samuels with Shea Locs, Fey Katembo with Fey’Kare. And of course me, with Texture Versus Race.

It’s awesome because people can come up and talk to the founders. Every single one of them has a different perspective. We’ll talk about their experience being a Black-owned company, whether being Black owned has worked for them or has hurt them.

They’re going to be up there doing demos and classes. Each brand is going to have a focused class, and we also have a stage where we’ll be rotating education all day.

We put things of interest on each corner and around the perimeter so people can come and engage.

Keya Neal and the Texture Versus Race Collective at the International Beauty Show-NY 2023.
Neal, center, with the Texture Versus Race Collective at the International Beauty Show-NY 2023. (Texture Versus Race)

You said you didn’t envision TVR to evolve to what it’s become. Now, looking at where it is — where do you see it going?

If you had asked me that maybe a year or two ago, I might have had a different answer.

People are much more loud today about how they feel about diversity efforts and their resistance to it. Where they were silent about it before, they’re loud about it now.

I think the industry is heading toward a new level of segregation. Between the diverse and the non-diverse, between the wanna-be-inclusive and the don’t-wanna-be. And I’m OK with that.

There doesn’t have to be a riot, there doesn’t have to be picketing, there doesn’t have to be protesting. You don’t want me in your store? Then I’m not coming. You don’t want me in your salon? Then I won’t go.

While we can’t necessarily put signs up that say who can’t come in, we can definitely put up signs that say who CAN. We can tell people: You are welcome here. We can make more effort to show we’re inclusive, that we’re all humans here who want to create a higher, elevated human experience.

So it’s not where TVR will go — it’s how it will evolve to meet the needs of the people who need it.

Texture Versus Race is for the person who wants to be part of change, who wants to learn, who wants a diverse clientele. We’re not here to change a made-up mind. We’re here to be a resource and advocate for those who want to move forward.

 

Keya Neal and Texture Versus Race will be teaching at the International Beauty Show-Las Vegas from June 22-24.