Do you have any idea what that is? If the answer is yes, you’re probably a black male and you’ve spent your fair share of time in a black barbershop. If the answer is no, pay close attention. You’re about to get schooled on the in’s and out’s of one of the most (if not THE) sacred places in a black man’s world. Now, I’ll be very honest and say that I struggled mightily with this narrative. I’ve been going to the barbershop for over 20 years and that makes it very tough to be objective without allowing my personal experiences and feelings skew my interpretation of what a black barbershop is and isn’t. Then again, any black man would feel the same way so I enlisted the help of an outside consultant to take you on this fantastic voyage into the heart of black culture.
I’d like to introduce Dr. J. Dr. J. is a dear friend and Ph.D. in political science. His expertise is in Racial and Ethnic Politics, Women and Politics and Urban Politics. He’s an avid Philadelphia sports fan and pulls for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame almost as hard as anyone I know. You can find him at spitting hot fire to underclassmen at a university near you where he is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science department. Trust me, he can hold his own against anyone on an episode of I Know Black People.
“Barbershops are the archetype of the black public space, consisting of a relatively permanent physical space, but with constantly changing memberships. Barbers and hairstylists still constitute the overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs in the African American community. There is an informal hierarchy of the stylists and regular customers, but there is no official organization or membership. The boundaries to these spaces are permeable and unfixed, meaning that the composition and characteristics of the space are constantly shifting. The one constant is that black people in these spaces believe themselves to be free to talk to one another beyond the gaze of racial others. Usually financially autonomous, sole proprietorships, black barbershops and salons operate beyond the fiscal control and below the radar of whites.” —Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought
I love black barbershops. And I don’t even go to get my hair cut (although I tried that once and they were going to make a few phone calls to see if they could bring someone in to scissor cut my hair). I love black barbershops because they are the lynch pin of black culture outside of church. I love black barbershops because you are judged on the merit of your contribution to the communal good—and the communal good is not hair. The communal good is conversation and interaction. I love black barbershops because they are a time capsule–a part of black culture that regardless of time and place represents the same thing and exhibits the same characteristics.
For a lot of white folks, black barbershops are a mystery: a place that you’ve heard about but don’t dare go to because of your skin color. And most white people probably know nothing about what goes on inside. And in a lot of ways, this is done on purpose. Black barbershops are an important part of the black community that needs to remain centered on the black community.
With that said, going to a black barbershop as a white man can be an amazing experience. First things first though, it may feel awkward at first. It’s always difficult to be the only person in a group that is different. Ask Barack Obama about his time in the U.S. Senate and the evil looks shot his way by the white delegation. But rather than be uncomfortable about it, you’ve got to accept it. When I went into the barbershop for the first time, I did not know what to expect. Like most white people, my experience with a black barbershop involved Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, and Sean Patrick Thomas (shout out to a fellow Delawarean). Unlike most white people though a good deal of my professional life is being the only white male in a room. I am political scientist that studies gender and race. Not uncommon for me to be at a conference and be the only male in a room of female political scientist, or the only white guy in a room of black black political scientist. I thought this would help me prepare for my first experience at a black barbershop, but I was mistaken. Nothing can really compare to the experience until you actually live the experience.
Which brings me to October 8th, 2009: my first time in a black barbershop. I was in what could be argued as the Mecca of black America: Atlanta, GA. My first thought was “this place is busy, and a lot of the hair actually looks like it has already been cut.” My second thought came to me about 2 minutes into my visit; I said to myself, “holy shit, what if it comes to me to say something?” I was unaware of the hierarchy of conversation. I did not know the protocol—do black barbershops follow Roberts’ Rules of Order? Or is it like British Parliament? Yelling and screaming and hoping others can hear you.
Luckily for me, the topic of conversation was the NFL. I didn’t exactly chime in with insight, but was pulled into the conversation by the youngest of the barbers in the place who was looking for an ally in an up hill battle of an argument with his fellow employees. I was the prime target to be sucked in. I hadn’t taken sides. I looked scared shitless. And I was right next to him. I can’t remember exactly what I said or how I appeared—but I remember immediately after my first comment feeling like I could hold my own and began to get more involved in the conversation. As the time flew by, I remember being disappointed that we had to leave. I was completely hooked. The debate. The banter. The atmosphere. The whole thing was an amazing experience. Each time I went back to Atlanta over the years I would ask Alvin “you getting your hair cut this weekend?” But sadly, each time after, Alvin was fresh and trimmed by the time I got into town.
Which brings me to the main point of my contribution–a public service announcement for white people who may want to go to a black barbershop. A guide of sorts that if followed will allow for a highly enjoyable experience at a black barbershop.
Dr. J’s Advice for a White Person in a Black Barbershop:
1. Know your shit. This is a given before even stepping foot through the door. Nothing will sell you out as an outsider more than a lack of general knowledge. And you need to be prepared for a general battery of topics- sports, politics, etc. The best way to be out of place AND feel out of place is to be a wallflower. You are not there to observe. You are there to engage and contribute.
2. Don’t expect to be in and out if you’re there to get your hair cut. This is not the Hair Cuttery. It is not a fast food line. If you want a haircut in 15 minutes or less, you should go to a Great Clips. Minimum time you will spend in a black barbershop is an hour: although you SHOULD spend as much time as you can.
3. Go with a black guy who’s a regular. It’s difficult to just walk in alone. I’ve done this and you get looks. When you’re with someone who is a known entity, it takes the edge off. It makes it more comfortable for the natural flow of conversation—remember, black barbershops try to fly below white radar. If you walk in alone, it’s like sending a sonar ping on a submarine.
4. Don’t try to drive the conversation. The natural flow of dialogue is going to occur. Customers will walk in and out all day, and the men behind the chair may be having the same conversation for 6 hours. It’s not a presidential debate with one-minute answers, thirty-second rebuttals, and you move onto the next topic. It’s more like Forrest Gump—the people sitting in the chair change, but the story is going to drive on. So jump right in.
5. Don’t bring up Rocky Marciano. This is a given.
Dr. J does a great job of articulating what a typical experience in a black barbershop can entail. But, as expected, he isn’t able to grasp the feel of the shop and what it really means to a black male due to his outside perspective. (Aaaaaand, you can and sometimes need to get in and out in under 20 minutes. Make sure to call ahead if this is the case.) After all, there’s a difference between studying abroad in Acapulco and actually being from Guadalajara…
I’ve been getting my ears lowered at the ‘shop for as long as I can remember and most of Dr. J’s accounts are spot on. On the whole, a trip to the barbershop isn’t really about the cut at all. It’s about camaraderie, fellowship and brotherhood. It’s where boys learn how to speak and act like men. It’s where fathers and sons find common ground. It’s about going to a place where the presence of women isn’t valued and men are free to just be men–like an adult treehouse. Anything and everything is fair game for discussion, rap music isn’t played until after noon and if you ask a question you are sure to receive a cornucopia of (unsolicited) responses. That’s the beauty of the shop and it’s one of those things in life that’s sometimes difficult to explain but the consensus seems to understand. One of the very first things on my to-do-list when I arrived in Austin was to find the closest shop. It really is the center of the black community so finding this location was mission critical.
You can be 100o miles from home and still feel right at home–that’s what the ‘shop means to me.