Darnell Atkins, the Black male nail technician defying gender norms in the billion-dollar industry

Societal pressures and stereotypes have stifled a lot of dreams. We all know of the saying, do not judge a book by its cover. Nonetheless, many of us are quick to put people in a box of our choosing based on their appearance and our perspective of how things are meant to be.‘Meant to be’? By whose standard though? Darnell Atkins has defied all odds and has broken into the billion-dollar nail industry dominated by mostly Vietnamese women, according to a dedicated market research database, Statista. There are only 2% black nail salon workers and quite a negligible amount of them are Black men, data from UCLA Labor Center reveals. Atkins and a few other men are breaking gender stereotypes and are shifting market trends by establishing themselves in the nail industry.The 29-year-old nail technician from Washington D.C did not always dream of being one. However, he did not turn his back when the opportunity somehow presented itself to him when he was in dire need of a job. Atkins was in the U.S Navy, but he was sacked because of his addiction to synthetic marijuana. Like most veterans, Atkins needed a means of survival after returning home from serving his country. He then turned to the streets to survive and this would become the start of something new for the veteran.“I resorted back to a couple of hustles,” Atkins said. “But in the midst of me resorting back, I always found myself in front of a Black-owned nail salon. All the hustlers would gravitate towards this area because that is where all the pretty girls were.” He then got extra curious about the happenings in the salon and further inquired about the cost of a manicure and pedicure. To his surprise, the service was going for $70. He decided to embark on his journey to being a nail technician himself that day when he realized how much money they were earning. “I was hungry, and I was motivated to find a way out,” Atkins said. ‘I didn’t have anything else, so I dumped all of my money into learning how to do nails.” The stereotypes associated with being a nail technician and the fear of being labeled as gay made Atkins obscure his identity as he began his training. He said he walked into the shop with a hood over his head with hopes that he would not be recognized. According to WUSA9, Atkins did not want his masculinity to be put under a microscope by everyone including other Black men, especially since there were no Black male nail technicians in his neighborhood. The heavy stigma that comes with a black man deciding to be in the cosmetology industry weighs heavily on them and Ogundele Cain, a graduate of Virginia State University could not agree more with Atkins. Cain, a 25-year-old Black man also did not grow up seeing black male nail technicians although he harbors the desire to be one. He is set to enroll in a cosmetology school, but the coronavirus pandemic has put those aspirations on hold for now.“I never saw a lot of Black men doing nails, and I definitely never saw a lot of Black straight men doing nails either,” Cain said. “I’ve always been vocal about breaking out of the patriarchy and away from society’s viewpoint of what masculinity should be,” he said. “The goal is to break the mold.” According to Atkins, his aim is to inspire Black men to be fearless in pursuing their dreams or interests with pride and dignity while challenging societal stereotypes.“I want to do good work and be noticed for that, rather than the guy that just started doing nails and people are like, ‘that’s not normal,’” Atkins said. “Let’s make a big impact out of not being normal.” Thankfully, there are others who appreciate these trailblazing black individuals like Ekatarina Bender. She admits Atkins is the first black male technician she has met and the more reason she deems it fit to support his business. Bender a loyal customer, takes her daughter to Atkins’ nail salon because she supports “his movement of defying gender norms.”