The Black barbershop is both toxic and intimate for cishet Black men
Cishet Black men are often committed to their barbers in ways that resemble romantic relationships.
by Da’Shaun Harrison
Disclaimer: this piece was written with the intent to create a productive dialogue around intimacy and attraction. It is not to say that the connection between barber and client is inherently sexual, but rather that the erotic/intimacy/attraction operate on a spectrum.
The barbershop has historically been a place of refuge, a sacred space, for (mostly) cisgender, heterosexual Black men. Like many other institutions, it has been home to deep-rooted heterosexism and misogynoir. However, it has also served as a sanctuary for Black male intimacy, healing, and love. In this space, they arrive at intimacy and attraction in a toxic way, but they do arrive there.
Though many cishet Black men would not use these words to describe their experience, I argue that the relationship between Black men and their barbers is a homoerotic one. Furthermore, their refusal to acknowledge it as intimate not only reinforces hegemonic masculinity, but it also aids in the demonization of queer Black men.
My stepfather is a barber. I have watched him cut hair in various shops since I was a child, witnessing the ways that Black men greet one another as they enter this haven. I have seen how the barber cradles their client’s head as they stand with their bodies pressed firmly up against the person in the chair. I have listened as men share their most intimate stories—be it sexual, familial, or otherwise. Stories about sexual encounters with women, marriage proposals, deaths in the family, job interviews. In this way, the barbershop has ironically served as the very kind of “safe space” that they often deny others, especially queer-identified people.
The barbershop, especially for cishet Black men, has been a place of familiarity. One that is not easily broken or forgotten. Because of this familiarity, cishet Black men are often committed to their barbers in ways that resemble romantic relationships.
As I listen to men describe visiting a different barber as “cheating,” I chuckle. Even though the word is usually used jokingly, there is an underlying, unspoken understanding that this action truly is a form of infidelity, and that Black men’s relationships with their barbers are so intimate that even the thought of daring to step outside of it is an intolerable one.
What keeps Black men from “cheating” on their barbers is not the haircut, alone. While not having to explain to someone new how they like their hair cut, or the concern for having their hairline messed up, does play a major role in their disinterest in seeing another barber, it is also the conversation that comes with it that keeps them loyal. It’s the consistency. It’s the therapy. It’s the confidence given to them through these interactions. It’s the space created to heal and to love, albeit usually in toxic ways.
Cishet Black men work tirelessly to build a rapport with their barbers that is often unmatched. That is intimacy and that is attraction, even if they don’t want to admit it. The only thing that allows them to use the word “cheating” amongst themselves in reference to seeing another barber and not be thought of as gay is their cishet identity and their investment in hypermasculinity/heteronormativity.
It is this commitment to performing gender in a destructive way—thus (un)intentionally flattening the way in which intimacy shows up in every space—that does, too, contribute to the heterosexism within the barbershop. Said again, Cishet Black men’s refusal to acknowledge these interactions and relationships as intimate does not simply reinforce the hegemonic masculinity that they benefit from, bur also aids in the demonization of queer Black men.
Queer Black men in these spaces are often dehumanization by the interactions had there because a “faggot” experiences attraction in a way that is too close to connecting intimacy between two men to the homoerotic. We are too far away from straightness for us to sit freely in the barbershop and enjoy the same intimacies as the cishet men there. Heterosexism exists at alarming rates within the barbershop while cishet men engage so heavily in intimacy within this same space.
Intimacy and attraction are not confined to the spaces where two or more consent to exploring each other’s bodies, nor do they begin or end at someone admitting their desire for someone else. Intimacy is a moment of peace, closeness, and revelation. Attraction is a spectrum; an array of multi-layered, multi-dimensional feelings/thoughts/emotions. Neither of the two exist as a binary.
If queer men are to have room to exist freely in the barbershop, and if cishet men are to divest from hegemonic masculinity, there must be a clear understanding of how each of how both intimacy and attraction can show up in our everyday lives.This means that cishet men, in particular, must begin to reckon with how they view queerness, intimacy, and attraction, and how they navigate gender expression.
My intent here is not to discourage cishet Black men from having these intimate relationships with their barbers and in barbershops. On the contrary, I want to affirm these relationships while being clear that hegemonic masculinity is too small a box to ever truly fit in, at least not comfortably.
It was not until I arrived at an understanding of my own queerness that I began to look at intimacy through a lens outside of heteronormativity. What I am writing about here is the haptic experience; a reimagining of physical touch and sensuality, away from sexuality, as the erotic, too. The barbershop acts as another sector of the horizontal homosociality—used to describe relations between men, specifically, that are rooted in togetherness/intimacy/friendship—which, as Judith Butler puts it, cannot be separated from the homoerotic. And this is okay, because the homoerotic is not something to run away from.
Believing otherwise is what makes room for the overwhelming heterosexism that exists in the Black barbershop at the same time that intimacy between cishet men permeates the space. Because of this, it is necessary for cishet Black men, who run from vulnerability and homo-attraction, to understand that intimacy with and among other men shows up in many ways in their everyday lives. And understanding intimacy in this way can help to combat the heterosexism that shows up in barbershops and other androcentric spaces.
Da’Shaun Harrison is a student at Morehouse College studying Sociology and African-American Studies. He is a Black Queer organizer and abolitionist in Atlanta, GA, where he also has the privilege of serving as Editor-in-Chief of the newly-founded digital publication, Queer Black Millennial.