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Race, Politics, and Three Barbershops in Two Countries

By TK & Steven Lloyd Wilson | Politics | March 8, 2017 | Comments ()

By TK & Steven Lloyd Wilson | Politics | March 8, 2017 |


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Politics is easy to see as only the big things, as the speeches and elections, the protests and wars. The people who say they don’t care about politics, that’s what they think it is. They think politics is something that happens on television, and they’d rather be watching something else. But politics isn’t the big things, not really, not any more than a marriage is about the anniversary sex. Politics is what we swim in every moment of every day, until most of us don’t even see it, like fish that don’t know water exists. And privilege, well, the current doesn’t exist so long as you’re always swimming with it.

But it’s the small moments, the everyday interactions, which gradually build up into the gestalt of life. And sometimes, the small moments become the big ones. Sometimes, a trip to the barber is anything but.

Scene 1, TK:

It happened three days after the election. I was down, way down. But also? Scruffy. So I headed to the barber that I’ve been using since I started my current job. A small, quiet hole in the wall that gave serviceable cuts. My needs, hair-wise, are not many. My haircut is what could be called utilitarian at best. I head in. It was the same guy who always cuts my hair. But that day, things were different. He was different. From the moment I walked in, it was about the election. He wasn’t not pro-Trump, per se. But he was viciously and vociferously anti-Hillary, which is for all intents and purposes the same thing. And I sat through 20 minutes of “she’s just as bad if not worse” and “nothing will really affect us anyway” and “I can’t believe how upset people are, I mean really, who cares” and “Trump’s a decent enough guy but people gotta give him a chance”.

I sat there as he cut my hair, and I took it. One of the difficulties of being a light-skinned minority such as myself, someone of not-easily-identifiable ethnicity, is that sometimes white folks think you’re white. I could feel it happening here. He kept going and going, as if I should be nodding along. I sat, silent, staring straight at my reflection in the mirror, angry and frustrated at him and hating myself.

He started talking about a video that had been circulating, a bunch of black kids who dragged a white man out of his car and beat him up. Allegedly because he was a Trump supporter. It’s ugly stuff, that video. Then — of course — he goes off about Obama. And how come Obama hasn’t said anything about that video? And that’s the problem with Black Lives Matter, they only care about black people.

I paid him his money, walked to the door. I stopped. Turned around. Finally spoke.

“You know, in the four years I’ve been coming here, never once have you said anything about black people getting killed by cops, getting harassed and beaten and abused. We only talked sports and our kids and the weather. But one white guy gets beat up and you’re up in arms, and it’s Obama’s fault. Does that tell you anything about yourself? Anything at all?

I walked out. I was done there. I knew it was my last time going there.

Scene 2, SLW:

I went to the barber over the weekend here, got a proper Swedish haircut, which seems to be really short on the sides and long on the top. Feels kind of punk, which is weird for a guy with a bald spot who is about as punk as Jessica Fletcher.

The place is run by a couple of Middle Easternish guys, and there were about a half dozen people hanging around waiting for their turn. When he greeted me, I asked the barber if he spoke English - everyone does, but it feels more polite to ask even if half the time it annoys them because it’s so universal it’s almost like asking if they can read - and sure, it’d be about ten minutes, just sit down.

One of the guys asked where I was from, and I said California. And he called out to the barber to tell him “hey, he’s from America!” Entire shop cracked up laughing uproariously. A few things were said back and forth in Swedish that I couldn’t understand. I felt really uncomfortable, not unsafe, just really uncomfortable. It happens on occasion living as an expat, where all your ingrained social radar is going nuts and you don’t know why because it’s just not your world and you can’t pick up any of the context other than something being wrong. Sort of like every minute of junior high.

I just kind of sat uncomfortably, my turn came up, got my haircut. We finished up and I walked over with the barber to pay. He told me that the card scanner was broken and he could only take cash. For context: Sweden is essentially entirely cashless. No one carries cash at all at any time. Buy a candy bar for fifty cents, you still pay with a debit card. I felt like an ass - and kind of miffed at first because given the entire country is cashless, he should have said something before the haircut. But he waved it off, told me where the nearest ATM was so I could go get cash to pay. Didn’t even blink, just trusted me, a total stranger, to leave and come back with his twenty bucks.

I went, got cash, hurried back, and he was just closing up the shop for the day. And he asked if I was really American, I said yes, and he told me that he was from Iraq and that his entire family was killed during Iraqi Freedom: his wife and his son, “a boy, just a little boy”. And that even so he worked for the Americans afterwards, and when it became too dangerous he tried to go the United States but “they say they don’t know, I maybe terrorist” but Sweden took him in.

What do you say to that? I’m sorry your family is dead because of my country? I’m sorry my country betrayed you even after you helped us? Here’s three hundred crowns, keep the change?

And on some objective level would I even have really blamed him if he’d just punched the fucking American who came into his shop wanting a haircut? Or if he’d had his half dozen friends in there just drag the stranger into an alley on principle? How many places in the US would he have gotten that exact response, just for being brown? And instead, he simply trusted me to go get his money. And then gave me his card and told me to call next time to set up an appointment so I didn’t have to wait in line.

Because hate and suffering don’t drive out good. It persists.

Scene 3, TK:

Four months later. I’ve been trying to find a new barber. It’s important, you know. You should have a good barber, even if your haircut is as pedestrian as mine. After a couple visits to a couple of those chains — you know, Great Cuts or SuperClips or Clips-R-Us, where you basically have two options: “Woke Up This Way” or “Attacked in Prison” — I finally just googled “best barbershop in town”. The first result? “The Best Barbershop”. I kid you not.

Lunch break, I drove over. It’s literally five storefronts away from my last barber. I walked in and began to fall in love. Beautiful red and black decor. All of the guys who work there are black or Latino, all dressed sharply in white shirts, black vests and black ties. ESPN on one TV, MSNBC on the other. My cut was delayed because one of the barbers had lost his car keys and they were all searching for them. Me and the other patron pitch in, lifting up couches, shuffling things around. It’s actually a funny scene, and it felt… like home. It’s rare that I so seamlessly just became a part of a group like that. We were joking around, even though the poor guy was panicking. Finally the owner is like, OK, we gotta get to work. So he takes me to a chair. I tell him what I’ve told every barber for the last 15 years: “exactly what you see, but shorter”. He laughs, asks a few more questions, and then just settles into a quiet rhythm, humming softly as he works. A female employee walks in, asks why the other guy is so frantic. “Lost his keys,” the owner says. She makes a “tsk” noise, walks straight over to the chair next to mine, lifts the black towel, and holds them up. The guy loses his shit. “You gotta be kidding me.” She laughs. “You so useless”. He laughs with her. The other barber laughs too, says “Man I told you they were gonna be somewhere stupid.” At this point, we’re all giggling uncontrollably.

It continues like that, just an easy camaraderie. Eventually the staff starts talking about what’s on TV and there are three main subjects: The NFL combine, how ridiculous Stephen Curry’s game is, and “that fuckin’ Trump”. I splurge on a shave too, because I’m having too much fun to leave yet. Haircut and a shave runs me 20 bucks, and I gladly throw him 30.

I walked out feeling rejuvenated. My bitterness towards the last place was gone, replaced with a weird sense of contentment and hope. I know, it’s just a barbershop, and it’s just a damn haircut. But I also realize that this neighborhood that I work in? It’s filled with joints like that. Which means for every asshole that makes me feel like I don’t belong, there’s a dozen others that feel like home. And that, I can’t help but feel, is what will ultimately save us.

Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.


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