Essay: The Barber’s Chair


Erick Iraheta, Author

He was too Black, and I was White enough. They saw an enemy when they looked at him, and saw an ally when they looked at me. I am to blame for this as I should have stood up for the man who walked in that day. It was last summer when I went into my regular barbershop: the one I had gone to since I barely knew how to talk. Situated in a Latino neighborhood, we all exclusively spoke Spanish. It was owned by a Puerto Rican woman in her 30s, and my barber was a Central-American woman in her 20s. I was extremely anxious, as per usual. I am incredibly insecure when it comes to haircuts because I fear the mistreatment of my hair. Nevertheless, I sat on the chair and prepared myself to calm my nerves. This never happened. Instead, I was overcome with a stress equivalent to the first rumblings of a volcanic eruption.

When a Black man walked into the barbershop asking for a haircut, the barbers approached him with a skeptical look. He spoke perfect Spanish, yet they looked at him like he was foreign. He was accompanied by his daughter who could not have been older than eight. Asking to get a haircut, they sent him next door to a man who they claimed would “fit his needs”. The next door barber was not there, and around five minutes later, he re-entered the business asking if one of the barbers could cut his hair. The skeptical look turned microaggressive. My barber claimed that her clippers would not cut his tight, curly hair, as if her tools discriminated against hair types. She continued, and in my head, I was hoping the barbers would not say anything disrespectful or racist, but my premonition was overbearing. I knew what she would say next: “Tu tiene el pelo malo.” My stomach turned when I heard those words. However, she did not say this. Instead, the man finished her sentence for her, declaring his own hair the “bad kind.”

I’ve lived in Latino communities my whole life—enough to know that they glorify European features in an effort to erase African ancestry. Many don’t claim their race, and find insult with being called Black. Worst of all, many Latinos with the greatest European descent lambaste those who choose to embrace their African heritage. They view those with tighter curls and darker skin as inferior to them. This appalling reality is present in the everyday lives of Afro-caribbeans who have these physical features. Although Blackness is a social construction, its consequences can be gruesome.

The man was kicked out of the barbershop for simply asking for a haircut. I vividly remember looking at his daughter, saddened that her father had just been painted as the other. Us and them. Ustedes y nosotros; Too Black to have a place in the barbershop. I was livid. With the haircut barely finished, I was stuck in my own head processing what the hell just happened. I should have said something. Instead, I stayed silent—leaned into my listening state when there was nothing else I had to hear for me to know that this was wrong.

After his dismissal, the barbers both openly said that he was the “problematic type.” I did not need to hear anything else to understand that simply being Black to them was enough to be labeled as a nuisance. And there I was, a man who claims his Blackness. A man who preaches anti-racism and is educated enough to represent Afro-latinidad at predominantly White institutions. Yet, when I was out in the real world, I did not stand up for a man who shared my identity. I deserve to feel ashamed. We are both made of bones and blood. That man was no different from me. Because of my light skin, they must’ve not seen that he and I are quite similar. Yet, they treated him differently than they had treated me.

If I stood up that day, would I have done him justice, or would I have choked in my own words; buckled my knees back onto my silent chair; panicked under the pressure of facing racism in the real world head on? And even if I did stumble over my own words, I had a choice. Unlike that man, I had the luxury to choose whether or not I wanted to take the stage with the hopes of spreading a spotlight onto their ignorance. Instead, I chose to be a coward. I chose to say the worst thing I could have possibly said: nothing.