In January, protesters at a Lafayette nail salon alleged that its African-American customers had been the targets of ongoing racial discrimination. The salon owner says that’s not true. But behind the opposing she said/she said stories, a more complicated narrative emerges about stereotypes, perception, and bias.
Controversy surrounding alleged racism at a nail salon isn’t unique to Lafayette. In 2018, salons in New York and Florida made headlines after their own clashes between customers and staff.
Dominique Streeter had one broken acrylic nail, so she decided to check out Lafayette’s Delux Spa and Nails, a convenient walk from work. But instead of a quick fix, Streeter says salon owner Kim Bidwell argued with her over details like nail color and rhinestone application.
The next day, another nail broke. But instead of visiting a different salon, Streeter decided to head back to Delux.
“I just felt like my energy was off,” Streeter says. “I wasn’t giving her what I expected back. So I go in on a different day with a new outlook.”
But Streeter says when she walked in and said good morning, she was told the salon was busy with other appointments…all day. A few days later, she tried again. Streeter says on that day, she didn’t bother to speak to anyone, as the nail salon was packed. But she tried one last time later in the week, bringing doughnuts as a good will offering the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Once again, she was told there were no appointments available the rest of the day.
“And I left--I stormed out,” Streeter says. “Came back in, said ‘Give me my doughnuts.’ She said, ‘We don’t want them anyway.’”
“That’s a lie,” says Delux Nails and Spa owner Kim Bidwell. “We’re never busy entire day.”
Bidwell is seated in a leather swivel chair at the salon. Across the room, the metallic whirr of a nail drill as a technician leans over a customer’s hands.
“If I’m racist, the first day she came in, I’m not gonna do her nails,” Bidwell says.
Bidwell is Vietnamese. She says she came to America when she was 15, and has lived here for 40 years.
“You know what?” Bidwell says. “I cannot please everybody. That’s all. Bottom line.”
Streeter went to social media after her final visit. That’s when she discovered Yelp reviews and Facebook comments, going back several years, from African-American women sharing stories like her own about Delux. Streeter says it never occurred to her that what happened might have been racist, but once she saw the similarities between multiple accounts, she was convinced – and upset. She decided to protest outside the shop the next day.
“A lot of people get into the fight for the first time because of that moment of dissonance where the world suddenly feels completely different from what we expected it to be like,” says Vanessa Pacheco, the policy director of the Lafayette branch of the national social justice organization Younger Women’s Task Force.
Pacheco says her group wanted to find a way to partner with Streeter – who says she’d never previously engaged in activism – to help her protest.
But the protest came on the heels of Streeter making some questionable comments herself. On Facebook, Streeter used slurs to mock Bidwell’s ethnicity and appearance.
“It was just the moment I was in,” Streeter says. “I grew up a little different, I’m rough around the edges, I’m maturing as I get older. So the language I used was strictly off of anger, anger.”
“We’re all sort of under the same umbrella of different kinds of ideas about how race works; about the differences between different racial and ethnic groups in our societies, and the question becomes: at what point do we draw on those problematic ideas and use them in very violent and negative ways?” says Purdue University sociologist Jean Beaman.
Pacheco says the takeaway from the animosity between Streeter and Bidwell shouldn’t be that everyone is racist.
“That’s a convenient story, so that I can go on and live my life and keep my bias,” Pacheco says.
But Beaman says it’s still important to acknowledge even unconscious feelings.
“She’s trying to appeal to these individuals as individuals in this sort of one on one interaction, and then coming to realize that it’s not just a one on one interaction--it’s also particular stereotypes based on her, based on the fact that she’s black, and I guess the corollary of that is the stereotypes she has of the people who work in the nail salon,” Beaman says.
Pacheco says it’s important to think about how biases, as she puts it, “disintegrate relationships” within the community.
“Sitting down and thinking about that, and saying: how is that me? That’s scary stuff,” Pacheco says. “But it’s the work that we have to do.”
Streeter and Bidwell both say they don’t have plans to talk again. Bidwell declined to comment on whether the incident has hurt her business’s bottom line.