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Denny Kemp responds: We're not racists, we're learning

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Denny Kemp wanted to talk to Bianca Dawkins directly. Still does, though as time passes, he's less and less sure that she wants to speak with him.

"I have a feeling right now, she doesn't want us to be a part of her process," Kemp said. "I don't think that she thinks that we can be of help to her. But she can be a help to us, because we have made all the mistakes."

This was one of several candid and clearly painful admissions Kemp made during a Tuesday afternoon interview, about six hours after City Pages published a story detailing Dawkins' disturbing experience at Denny Kemp Salon and Spa in northeast Minneapolis. 

As Dawkins explained on Facebook, and to City Pages, the stylist she'd booked with was taken aback to see her natural hair — "textured," Dawkins explained, and "really curly" — after some 18 months of growing it out, untreated. Dawkins recalls that the stylist called her hair "an animal that can't be tamed."

That line is one of a few small, semantic points where the salon's story differs from that of its client. Suzy Martin, who handles communications and marketing with the salon, said the stylist used the phrase "a different animal" to refer to Dawkins' hair, meaning that her natural look was far different from her hair in previous appointments.

The salon also contends that the other, perhaps even more offensive line, was a matter of misinterpretation. Challenging that maybe the salon should just post a sign saying it doesn't do black hair, the stylist commented that it "isn't the 1950s." Dawkins took the stylist's assertion as an indication he wished they could enforce segregation; Kemp says the stylist was saying he's glad no one is allowed to prohibit black customers. 

Denny Kemp, left, says he understands if Bianca Dawkins doesn't want to engage with the salon yet.

Denny Kemp, left, says he understands if Bianca Dawkins doesn't want to engage with the salon yet.

Those quibbles aside, Kemp said he, himself, accepts full responsibility for the blow-up, which has led to a swarm of Facebook posts, emails, and phone calls. (A few of the calls and emails have taken a "threatening" tone, Martin says, with some expressing desire to fight the stylist.)

Kemp's salons — one in Minneapolis, one in Edina — have some black clients, but hardly any of them keep their hair in the natural, textured style Dawkins was sporting last week. At the Minneapolis branch, Kemp thinks he might have just one stylist who's adept at handling that kind of hair, and she was off the day of Dawkins' appointment.  

The stylist Dawkins had booked with probably saw hair he knew he couldn't do and got defensive, Kemp says. 

"Justin is highly talented in many, many aspects," Kemp says. "If he can't do something, he's not happy about it... he's a little emotional, and he's very, very proud." 

Kemp says Dawkins had, in a phone call, told him that she didn't want the employee fired over his offensive language. But Kemp did let Justin twist in the wind for a few days, before finally telling him he would keep his job.

Justin, who's worked for Denny for 10 years, hasn't been in since Friday's incident boiled over online.

"I said, 'You can have Wednesday off, but you're going to be here Thursday, facing all of this that's happening, so that you learn from it,'" Kemp says.

Hopefully he learns something from the pain, Kemp offered. As for the salon itself, Kemp is planning to enact a culture change based on a set of seven suggestions Dawkins had posted online. He wants his stylists trained in, professionally, on how to treat textured hair, so black women with those styles can feel comfortable setting appointments.

And he wants them trained in culturally on how to communicate with clients of different ethnicity. After Dawkins' Facebook post began to circulate, Kemp spoke with a black client who's been coming to the salon — to Justin, specifically — for years. The woman told Kemp she understands how Dawkins feels, saying any use of the word "animal" to describe a black woman is going to hit deeper, and more painfully, than it would with a white woman.

"I mean we're all probably guilty of being racist about something," Kemp said.  "We all have blind spots, you know, because we don't know." 

Dealing more often with white customers, Kemp tends to see hairstyles as more of a superficial decision. Cut it, dye it, curl it, layer it, rinse, repeat, often with no greater thought than what — or which celebrity — the woman wants to look like during the next few weeks. Black hair, and the decisions women make to style it or not, is a much more complex cultural topic. 

"There's more issues, it's much more sensitive," Kemps says. "I'm learning that." <!———EndFragment———>

The negative deluge against the salon continues, with negative calls, emails, and Facebook posts still rolling in. Last week, the salon had a 5-star rating on Facebook. As of Wednesday morning, that was down to 1.7 stars. It took years to build up a good reputation, Kemp says, and a weekend to erase it.

He says pain can be a good thing if you learn from it.

"I want to be super-positive about this," Kemp says. "I don't want Bianca to keep feeling bad. I wish that something positive, of this, would come out for her."

If he can't mend the relationship with Dawkins — "my door's always open to her," he says — Kemp at least wants his business to be more welcoming to black clients. 

"[Dawkins] did a lot for her community, and for us," he says. "She did open our eyes."