Barbershop: Multicultural Mecca - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Barbershop: Multicultural Mecca

Barbershop: Multicultural Mecca

By Sanjena Sathian

Barber Haircuts neon sign


Because the barbershop might be the next frontier in a racially changing America.

By Sanjena Sathian

James “J” Carey doesn’t mind getting some sideways looks when he goes to get his hair cut. The 6-foot-tall, burly, white construction worker always gets looks, he’ll tell you — because he prefers going to black barbers. “I’ve got my hair cut in 10 different states, and every time I’m the one who gets the sideways glance. But the black barbers are nicer, and the cuts cost a lot less.”

The 32-year-old was on his way to get a cut in Bayview, one of San Francisco’s African-American neighborhoods. When he arrives in a new city — as he did in various locations in Nevada, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Delaware and New Jersey — he searches Yelp for “black barber” or uses to find someone to cut his hair for under $20. 

Black barber cuts white man's hair.

Source Image Source/Corbis

Black barbers around the country will tell you J’s experience is becoming more and more common — he’s part of a noticeable trend of white men (and Asians and Latinos, too) who patronize traditionally black barbershops. In an OZY survey of 10 black barbershops in the Bay Area, New York, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Chicago, San Antonio and Los Angeles, barbers, speaking over a buzz of razors and ESPN, all said the same thing: White guys are coming in the door more, and even if they’re nervous or surprised at first, they tend to keep coming back.“People look at you funny for about 10 seconds, and then you start talking about sports or music or something and it’s all fine,” he laughed.

For decades, integration has brought people together — in school, at work, on teams and in the bedroom. But one of the few places to remained stubbornly segregated is the corner barbershop. About a decade ago, suggest some of the barbers, that began to change. So much so that this unscientific sampling of black shops reports that as much as 25 percent of their customers are white — compared to less than 10 percent a few years ago.

“There’s still some hesitation — people wondering to themselves, ’Can they cut my white hair?’” says Peace, a barber at Levels Barbershop in Harlem. But Peace, like many of the other owners of predominantly black barbershops we spoke to, points to a few reasons behind the increase in the number of white customers.

The old college try. 
College kids in new cities need cheap cuts, and once they walk in the door, they tend to stick around, at least until they graduate. Sandy Burden, a receptionist at VIP Styles in Pittsburgh, says a quarter of their customers are nonblacks, including and especially foreign students. To a starving student, the $12 cut at VIP is pretty tantalizing.Some of my best friends are black. That’s how it starts, Peace says: White guys follow a tip from their black friends — and see that a $22 cut (the average among the shops OZY talked to) is just too good to pass up — especially when compared to the $30 and $40 prices at most mainstream salons. Peace’s shop isn’t doing as well as he’d like — he used to take in about $400 a day five years ago but these days is making only $150 — but the spike in white customers has helped him cover the rent in an increasingly pricey part of town near Columbia University. 

Better low-cut than bald. As white men age, many would prefer not to look like Vin Diesel, say the surveyed barbers. And even though caucasians know their hair is fundamentally different from textured black hair, there’s a definite appeal to being able to cut low and close — the classic black haircut. The upshot? Less hair for white guys means more business for black barbers. 

Yelp: the next great racial integrator. Since the service does not identify shops as “black,” many nonblack customers will show up based on reviews, location and price. Anthony Hamilton, a Mountain View-based barber, says he sees “all nationalities” coming in his door and occasionally he’ll see someone hesitate on the threshold. “Then I just want to say, hey, come on in and give us a try,” he says, remembering how he once sat a new white customer in the middle of a lively barbershop debate and said, “’We’re having a conversation about rap. You just jump in when you want to.’ And then soon he was just completely taking it over.” Changing neighborhoods. As one Atlanta barber noted, a quick look at the areas surrounding traditionally black barbershops reveals one thing: Cities are changing. And because “integration” over the last three decades has tended to yield groupings of Hispanics, Asians and whites to the exclusion of blacks (according to Pew), the barbershop could be one of the few places where integration includes black Americans, instead of leaving them behind.

Easy conversation? Integration? Fewer white guys looking like Kojak? Sounds like a win-win-win. Especially when you consider that haircutting is a $59 billion industry — mostly concentrated in high-end salons; and the men’s grooming industry is poised to surpass $33 billion by 2015. So if even a portion of that money is redirected to small middle-market businesses, shops like Peace’s will have a fighting chance in higher-rent neighborhoods.Once they show up and realize the shop is predominantly black, some white guys can look a little worried. But they’re also too embarrassed to leave. So they stay — and with a good cut and positive feedback from wives, girlfriends and others, they come back. Some know white customers who see their choice as a “cool thing” — in a lily-white world, getting to show up and feel comfortable in a predominantly black environment feels good. Peace, for his part, has one white customer who “travels all over the world – and won’t let anybody touch his hair but me, after five years of me cutting for him.” And what can always be counted on to bridge the gap? Sports, of course. With the game on, and conversation flowing, barbershops generate an easy intimacy, Peace and others say.

Whatever brings them in the door, they’re sticking around — for the cut, for the conversation and especially for the sports.

The irony, of course, is that historically — in the days of slavery and just after — black barbers survived almost exclusively by cutting and shaving for white men — which was both funny and tragic and no doubt gave rise to Sweeney Todd-type fantasies. But as the century turned, more subcommunities developed and then businesses opened to serve their needs, changing along with the times. 

Which suggests we shouldn’t assume this latest form of integration is going to change the world – even if it changes the economics for some small businesses. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is the fresh, frank environment spurring integrated conversations among men of many races. “It’s more about the cultural thing,” Hamilton says. “There’s no time for ‘this is a black salon.’ This isn’t a black salon. It’s a salon for people.”

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