The Racist Barbershop

I was a stranger in a strange land in need of a haircut.  Visiting my family in St. Louis shortly before my wife and I moved to Israel, I had, as usual, procrastinated my hair cut and beard trim, so I was looking a bit shaggy.  And I was thinking it would probably make sense to not have to get a haircut right after moving to a foreign country.

So I did what we all did back in 2011, I looked on Yelp for a good barber.

And I found this one that seemed like one of those hidden places that the magic of the internet helps you discover.

“A hidden gem,” was how one reviewer put it.

“This is what I imagine an old times barbershop was like,” another said.

“They’re so welcoming and warm, it’s like joining a club,” one more said.

My gosh, those were some good reviews.  Sounded like some old school charm.

My wife and I decided to make a day of it.  We’d spend the day catching up on all the errands we had been putting off before our move.  Clothes and all that.  But first, off to the barber.

It took us an extra ten minutes to find it because the GPS could hardly figure out its location. We actually had to call them. We finally found it in the back of a strip mall, hidden from view. It was almost like they didn’t want to be found.

I was late for my appointment, so we rushed towards the door, hoping that our day wasn’t already shot, that I’d have to get a haircut in Israel the second we landed.  We could hear activity and loud jokes from outside the door, and although I was in a rush I was excited to walk into this “hidden gem.”

We barreled through the door, catching our breath as we looked up.

The moment felt like it was out of a movie.

You know the kind.  Almost always a comedy, almost always purposefully corny.  The guy walks through the door and all the sound and noise that existed before just stops.

That’s what happened when we walked through.  All the joking and activity of dryers drying and scissors cutting and shavers shaving seemed to stop at once.  Everyone looked up at me, and for a brief moment, I could see fear in their eyes.  Fear and confusion.

“Uh, hi, I, um, have an appointment,” I said, not really knowing what else to do, the words coming out as a jumble meant only to break the silence.

And then, just as quickly, just as comically, the activity went back, and the looks of fear disappeared and the men (they were all men) focused back on their work.

A man motioned me over to his chair. It was the only empty one.  The place was packed and just as alive as the reviews had said.  The chair was a sort of old leather kind that still felt new, as if it had been transported from the 1950s in a time machine.  The entire place was like that, I realized, as I looked around.  Everything from the swirling barber pole to the white outfits of the barbers gave over the vibe of an old-timey barbershop, one that you could sense was made to help everyone there feel at home.

I sat down, and told the man the kind of haircut I wanted.  I also asked if he could do a bit of a beard trim.  He smiled and nodded, but I could see in his eyes how he was struggling to stay friendly while pushing down whatever had been going on before.

As he got started, I noticed the other thing that made this place feel so old-timey.  It was the people.  The men.  Like the best community barbershops, you could tell this was a place for people in the know, that they had built up a clientele of people who all kind of fit together.

They were all men, as I said.  They were all old.  50s to 70s, it felt like.  Gray hair all around, on the men, on the floor.

And they were all white.

“So where are you from?” my barber asked, starting to settle into normalcy, and I smiled and said Chicago.

I could tell, though, that was not the answer he had been expecting.

Because, after all, I was brown.  I had a beard.  And I looked religious (although it was pretty clear they didn’t know I was Jewish).

I didn’t belong.

Slowly, our conversation slowed, then ended, as he worked his way through my hair at what seemed like a really fast clip.

The place itself seemed to relax back into its normal feel, whatever it was like before I had come in.  The joking returned, the warm discussions.  The smiles and nods and reminders of a time gone past.

And it was in the normalcy I could think about what had happened.

It hit me that what I had experienced was a sort of ridiculous overt racism.  One that wasn’t purposeful, and maybe that’s what made it even more extreme.  That they couldn’t hide their fear, that it was something they all experienced in unison, something so deeply ingrained that they couldn’t help but join in the fear at once.

And something about it felt so much more real than the other moments in life I experienced racism directed at me for being brown.

When the high school kids made fun of me, calling me a “terrorist” and to “go back to Yemen” I couldn’t help but feel it was no different than any other insult, like fat-shaming or attacks on looks, a way to dig deep into someone in a way they couldn’t fight because they couldn’t change.

And I guess when, every now and then, a person would look at me in fear (sometimes abject terror) at the airport, it always felt like an exception.  It was just one person.  You’ll always find one stupid person in the world if you look hard enough.

So, here in front of me, I realized, was the first truly, deeply racist moment I had ever experienced.  And unlike the other two experiences I had, this one felt racist.  As in, this wasn’t just a way to get under my skin.  In fact, they were trying to hide their reactions.  And they weren’t lone gapers, staring at me with no shame like the people in the airport.  They didn’t feel crazy, they felt normal.

And I suppose that’s what struck me about it all, the more I thought about it (as the man cutting my hair seemed to hurry and hurry, like he was in a race, as the other barbers cut slowly, like they had all day): they were normal.  If I wasn’t there, they would have been more than normal, they would have been out of some catalogue or maybe a TV show like Leave it to Beaver.  It was Pleasantville, and I had brought some color into their world.

So, they weren’t just normal.  They were good.  So clearly good.  Their calm softness with each other.  Their gentility.  Even the way my barber was trying so hard to force a conversation, the way everyone clearly didn’t want me to see their reaction, the way they tried so hard to act as if I didn’t scare them.

And so, it was in their goodness that their racism was most evident.  Not because it conflicted with their goodness, not really.  More because it was embedded in their goodness.  How their sweet, good nature was just as true, just as real, when they saw my brown skin and got scared.  How their desire not to appear concerned meant they were working deeply to help me feel comfortable, even though they were so clearly very uncomfortable.  How my barber smiled at me, even though he didn’t want to.

The cut and trim was over, and my barber gave me another tense smile and pulled out his mirror.

Almost feeling rude for being there, I hardly looked at the mirror, nodded and told him how wonderful it looked.  He smiled back, then took off my smock.  I shook his hand, thanked him again, and paid him the cost of the haircut.  I gave a ginormous tip, hoping maybe somehow that may help him see past my skin, my face.

As my wife and I left the barbershop, we could feel everyone’s eyes on us again.  Not the silence of before, but more of a sort of tense relief, a feeling that whatever anxiety had built since I arrived would finally leave along with us.

We walked outside and started talking.

“You saw that too, right?  It wasn’t just me?” I said to her, and she just smiled and nodded.  And shrugged.

Then she looked closer at me, her eyes narrowing.

“What?” I asked.

She touched my chin, then raised it up.  Then she laughed.

“What?!” I asked again.

“Touch your neck.”

I touched it.  It felt nice and trimmed, stubble there to let me still feel like I had a beard even though I wasn’t yet ready to grow a full one.

“So?” I asked.

“Touch the other side.”

I touched it, and then laughed.

Of course.  Of course he hadn’t finished the job.  Literally half of the beard on my neck had not been trimmed.  At all.

We both started laughing really hard.  The absurdity of the situation hit us really hard, and it went from weird and uncomfortable to so weird and uncomfortable that all we could do was laugh.

He had been in such a hurry to get me out, I knew that.  Hardly focused on me, really, just focused on getting me out as quickly as possible.  Probably scared.

So.  Of course he hadn’t finished.

That’s how deep his racism was.  So deep he could hardly control himself around me.  So deep that he was so afraid that, even though he worked at this place that everyone gave rave reviews to for their thoroughness and friendliness, he could hardly be friendly to me or even do his job properly.

We looked at each other, and I asked, “Do you think I should go back and ask him to fix it?”

She laughed hard again.

“I think you might give them a heart attack if you walk in there again.”


I joked about that incident for years.  There was just something so ridiculous about it all.  The movie moment when the record metaphorically scratched and everyone stared; the tense feeling in the room; the half-beard.

I suppose I had a sort of confidence.  A confidence that these were old geezers who would die soon.  That their children would take things over, things would change.  That was the way the world was going: more tolerant.  They could at least tell the difference between a Jew and a Muslim.

And then America started to hate again.  Not the hidden kind of hate, but the overt kind.  The hate that lets them cheer for a ban of immigrants from an entire religion.  The religion those men thought I was, the religion that caused them to shake in fear when confronted with it just once.

There were the increased hate crimes, against both Muslims and Jews.  The talk of Muslim detention centers.

And as I tried to absorb how half a country could be okay with all this, or at least rationalize it away, I thought more and more about my experience.

Because the thing about racism, when you’re not around it, is that it’s easy to think it only comes from bad people.  From men in hoods with burning crosses, or kids on Twitter spouting off, or just one-off individuals with hate in their hearts.

Maybe it also makes it easier for us to think of it that way.  Allows us to turn racists into enemies.  Into evil pieces of… that don’t deserve the time of day.  That should be shamed and sent to hide in the corners of society.

Which, I think, explains why I kept thinking about my time at the barbershop since then.  These were not evil, diabolical men with burning crosses.  They were good men.  Men who exuded friendliness and love.  Men who created a community of positivity.

But also scared men.

And that was what fascinated me, in retrospect.  What, maybe, felt absurd enough to laugh about at the time, but which contained an all-important truth about racism.

They didn’t hate me.  I did not feel hate.  None.

I felt abject terror.  The terror of ignorance, of not having contact with anyone but their tribe of whiteness.  They didn’t want to hurt me, they just didn’t want me to hurt them.

Like the cliche about scary animals, they were more scared of me than I ever would be of them.

Someone can be a good person and still be racist.  Their racism can even come from their goodness.  A desire to protect, to shield from harm.  And it may be worth our time to realize that while racism, bigotry, antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and all the rest may turn into overt hate, it always starts from somewhere else: fear and ignorance.  Not evil.