Bonnets and other silk nightcaps have been around for generations, especially among the black community. Most cost around $5 at a corner store.
“Many people have told me that their grandmothers wrapped their hair, and my aunt recently told me that my great-grandmother wrapped her rollers in toilet paper after it was all styled and set,” she said. “That was a lot less glamorous than my product, but the practice has been around a long time.”
People on social media criticized the caps, referring to the ties that bonnets and silk nightcaps have in the black community going back generations, none of which Marantz Lindenberg acknowledged.
She issued a statement on NiteCap’s Instagram addressing the criticism, writing that she failed to connect the product to the broader historical context. For that, she writes, the company stands “with those who are hurt, and we respect and hear their voices.”
Marantz Lindenberg, who is white, told CNN that the company is “focused on listening and looking for the right way to incorporate what we’ve heard into our approach for NiteCap.”
She didn’t specify what the company had heard or what changes she will make.
It’s not just about race
“The problem is not that the founder is selling them. The problem is, she seems to be claiming ownership over something that’s been around for generations,” said Grace Eleyae, who runs an online business selling modern takes on traditional satin nightcaps. Her products range from $10 to $50.
Silk and satin are great for hair and skin, and you don’t have to be black to use them, Eleyae said.
But the interview and the products involve what she called “elements of misappropriation,” with Marantz Lindenberg taking elements from a different culture without any mention of it.
“I think that’s why there was such an uproar,” Eleyae said. “This is a small company in Canada, but the elements of misappropriation are really hitting the black community at heart.”
The stakes are higher for black people, too.
An old story with a new product
When she heard about NiteCap, Suneye Rae Holmes, an economics professor at historically black Spelman College, thought it was funny — that this product, found for just a few bucks at corner stores, could be sold for so much.
But price aside, she said, the products and the controversy surrounding them follow history.
“As an economist and a black woman, I don’t think there’s anything new here, but it is interesting to see how it reincarnates itself as time goes on,” she said. “But there’s a lot of similarities from other examples that we’ve seen from history in which the ideas are there.”
Black people have historically had a much more difficult time accessing the marketplace, she said, whether undergoing violence when trying to get patents in the 20th century or not receiving the promised 40 acres and a mule during Reconstruction after the Civil War.
Even now, Holmes said, the trend continues in the burgeoning marijuana industry.
“There’s a huge gap in access to capital, which keeps black people from profiting off of their creativity and business ideas,” Holmes said.
It’s easier for white people to come into a market and make a profit, even if that market has been populated by black- or minority-owned businesses.
Holmes doesn’t blame Marantz Lindenberg as much as she blames the structural inequalities of capitalism. But she notes that Marantz Lindenberg is perhaps benefiting from her position — her access to capital, suppliers and connections — that have historically been and continue to be denied to marginalized groups.
Eleyae had these kinds of problems. She says she had to be creative in her marketing because she didn’t really have access to big-box retailers or large publications for exposure.
NiteCap, meanwhile, can be found on actress and influencer Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site, despite debuting just a few months ago.
That doesn’t mean things have been easy for Marantz Lindenberg. But it’s a question of access, Holmes said, and the resources and opportunities she was able to take advantage of that may not have been options for Eleyae and other minority business owners.
“Things are regurgitating themselves here for better or for worse,” Holmes said. “It’s a social problem.”