Halsey’s Lament And The Great Hotel Shampoo Ethics Challenge

When pop star Halsey took to Twitter to complain that the shampoo and conditioner typically made available to guests in hotel bathrooms are useful, if at all, only to women with “white people hair,” the immediate reaction in many quarters was that the race-victimization industry must be running out of outrages. “I’ve been traveling for years now and it’s been so frustrating that the hotel toiletry industry entirely alienates people of color,” she tweeted. (No, I never heard of her before either.) “I can’t use this perfumed watered down white people shampoo. Neither can 50% of ur customers. Annoying.” First she was accused of being white—she isn’t, believe it or not—

—then she was mocked for being ridiculous: surely the rich celebrity can afford to travel with her own hair products! But when one ponders a bit, Halsey has raised an interesting ethics dilemma.

After the commentary got rolling on social media, black women and women who were of mixed race genetic make-up spoke up to say that the singer was right: unless a woman had generic Caucasian hair, those little bottles make a mess of her coiffure.  “We’re not all millionaires, yet we all do stay at hotels and would appreciate if the shampoo didn’t turn our hair into Brillo pads,” wrote a Twitter user.

“Who knew me acknowledging that white hair care products are the national standard (while POC are confined to a tiny aisle) would piss so many people off. Not sorry,”Halsey persisted.  “If white ppl can enjoy the luxury/convenience, there should be an option for everyone to. It’s an ‘insignificant’ example of a bigger problem. That’s all!”

 Another fan wrote: “You need to remember this is one of the many small things that POC go through that makes them feel like we don’t matter enough to be catered to. It’s a microaggression.”

Is it really a microaggression? Or is it it just one of those realities of not being the majority that minorities have decided they should protest to bend society to their will? Is the fact that so many tools, appliances and other daily necessities are made for right-handed people a sign of hostility, or just a rational business decision? Hotel shampoo isn’t great (being bald, I find it makes good bubble bath, however), but it’s provided for those who want to use it. The “we’re not all millionaires” argument for the average person staying in a luxury hotel like the ones Halsey stays in is a stretch, but nonetheless, is it fair that hotels cater to the needs of the majority of women while ignoring the special needs of a minority? On the other hand, is it reasonable to expect hotels to spend the extra money to make multiple varieties of conditioners and shampoos available so no one feels discriminated against? Should I have to pay extra so Halsey isn’t offended?

Coincidentally, this week also brought the news that many hotels, as a cost saving initiative, were eliminating the small bottled entirely in favor of wall dispensers. I could easily see enough social justice warrior indignation being raised over racist shampoo that hotels decide, “Oh the hell with it. Let’s just stop stocking the stuff.” Would minority activists consider this a victory? Jack can’t enjoy his bubble bath any more because hotels had to choose between providing a tiny amenity to the vast majority of its guests and getting accused of “microaggression,” or spending a fortune to stock their bathrooms with sufficient varieties of hair products that nobody could complain of discrimination?

The controversy is really a smaller and more trivial version of the wheelchair-accessible transportation problem that I last wrote about here. I concluded then,

There are now 655 wheelchair accessible taxis in the New York city area.  I’d love to see statistics on how often they are used by the passengers they are designed to serve.  My guess: not that often. As much as anything else, this is an interest group power-play. It is discrimination, they insist,  if handicapped passengers have to wait longer than non-handicapped. New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission has proposed broad new requirements for wheelchair-accessible service for the entire for-hire industry including Uber and the other ride-hail companies. Naturally: they want to put ride-sharing companies out of business, and this could do it.

Government has a legitimate interest in making basic public accommodations reasonably and sufficiently accessible to citizens with handicaps, to the extent this is possible and financially feasible without reducing reasonable access for the non-handicapped majority, or putting companies out of business that can’t reasonably be expected to make expensive mandated adjustments. The government does not have an obligation to spend taxpayer dollars and to bully businesses so the handicapped can avoid all of  the inconveniences attendant to their misfortune. Nor is it the government’s function to ensure that handicapped citizens don’t have to plan their days.

Or that people with frizzy hair don’t have to carry their own shampoo and conditioner when they travel.

I can’t see without my glasses, and can’t wear contacts. If I go to a 3-D movie, I am very uncomfortable wearing the 3-D specs over my own glasses.  Isn’t that unfair? Isn’t that a microaggression against my handicap? Shouldn’t the theaters be forced to provide 3-D glasses that I can use as comfortably as anyone else? How is that argument any different from the protests of the Frizzy Hair Activists?

Halsey put her Twitter-finger on an ancient questions that divides nations, religions and ideologies. Is fairness possible, when everyone’s needs and expectations are different?


49 thoughts on “Halsey’s Lament And The Great Hotel Shampoo Ethics Challenge

  1. A) Sarah B.’s point is correct. Hotel shampoo is generally crap, even for white people. This is the underpinning flaw in Halsey’s argument – that White People somehow have it better. (The grass is always greener.)

    B) Take a giant chain like Hilton or Marriott or Hyatt. They have hotels around the world in every culture. Let’s look at the shampoo they offer in their Lagos, Nigeria property. Is it different? Is it better for everyone? Is it better for a certain genetic heritage of their clientele?

    C) Which brings me to how I voted: Hotels should carry a variety. I’m fine with the hotel putting a crap generic in every room for those who are easily satisfied, but they should probably keep a simple variety of premium sample bottles at the front desk for special requests that meets the needs across the board.

    D) Halsey claimed this was a race issue, but perhaps it’s a gender issue? Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough, but were men taking part in the complaining? Do men care as much about their hair as women? I mean, I care a little bit to appreciate a good shampoo, but not enough to complain in this fashion.

  2. I haven’t bothered to read the other comments, so apologies if this is retreading old ground… but I don’t think the answer is really any of the above — for the fairly simple reasons that hotels are a pretty heterogeneous lot and have a variety of potential solutions open to them that Jack didn’t consider in his post.

    Bluntly, I don’t think that a $30/night motor lodge would choose the same solution to this as a $1,000/night suite in Manhattan. Not only would the clientelle at the former be less likely to care about the resplendence of their coiffure, but an assortment of shampoo would take up money that would perhaps be better served in attempts to evict arachnid and Blattodean squatters — after all, even that clientelle prefers not staying at a literal roach motel.

    Beyond that, “making them available” covers a good bit of ground, in that it doesn’t necessarily mean simply setting a variety of bottles in the bathtub for guests to steal at their leisure. Some hotels may try keeping a smaller supply of an assortment of shampoos and conditioners in a supply closet and making them available to guests on request. That would mean that they’d only need to dip into that supply when a guest actually needs (or wants, I suppose) its contents… which probably wouldn’t be terribly often.

    Others could try to stock different shampoos in the gift shop for those hotels that have them, stock them in a “premium” bathroom bar akin to how they now oft do water bottles, or otherwise try to make a profit off of customers who want that sort of thing (and/or pass the costs on to said customers — take your pick).

    Still other hotels — like that $1,000/night suite I mentioned — might want to stock a variety of shampoos and make a big fuss about how the room includes an assortment of hair products suited to any customer’s preference… because some hotels are like that.

    What I suppose I’m getting at here is that the “practical” side of the “ethical and practical” bit really depends on the hotel… and that effects the ethics calculus that follows.

    That said, there’s rarely a perfect solution… which should be a surprise to absolutely nobody.

  3. If I travel to an Asian country, can I gripe that the toilet is a hole in the floor?

    As my racial preference today (whatever I decide that is) can I decide that norms in other cultures must change to accomodate my whim of the moment? How about the food available? If the food gives me gas, due to my racial makeup, can I make them change to cooking to beans and cornbread?

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