From Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas's ponytail to Oprah's natural on the cover of O magazine's September issue, black hair — the final frontier of racial politics for black women — is a perpetually vexed issue. But for all the trend pieces, blogs, and news segments dedicated to the growing natural hair movement, I still can't seem to find a place to get my hair cut in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where I live. For those of you who might be thinking, "Why doesn't she just go to Ft. Greene or Crown Heights, or any of the various other blacker Brooklyn neighborhoods?" I say this: Because I live in Williamsburg. And so does my hair.
God, my hair. I rocked a hippie afro throughout my childhood. Then tried to tame it to fit in with the white kids in middle school, unsuccessfully, so I cut it all off and wore a short crop cut through high school. I let it grow out again during college, and then cut it weeks before graduating as some kind of feigned feminist act protesting the objectification of women based on the length of their hair. Or something.
More recently, after a vicious breakup with a job, I cut off all my hair for the first time since then. It took me the better part of 20 years to grow it out to my shoulders, and I vowed never to cut it again (occasionally, I would even wake up in a cold sweat for fear that I had in fact cut it off in a foolish moment of haste). I very rarely had it professionally cut or even trimmed, and I almost always wore it back. But even as I rationalized that I'd rather have the option to wear it down than not, at the end of the day, I am a low maintenance gal who likes the idea of hair products far more than the effort it takes to apply them.
And anyway, it was time for a change. For the big chop, I went to my friend, a well-regarded commercial stylist who was doing me a solid, and of course, providing moral support. He was comforting and encouraging as giant clumps of my beloved dark curls fell to the floor, until finally there was little left other than a rounded halo of nappy sprigs. I loved it.
Because I'd rather buy a new pair of jeans than pay for an expensive haircut, and since I knew my friend would be too busy to be my go-to upkeep guy, I decided to wing it the first time out. Sure, it's Williamsburg, but how hard could it be for someone who's job it is to cut hair ... to cut my hair for length and keep the shape? And shape is key, because with a really close crop you have to be strategic about where the hair needs to be a bit longer, otherwise the default shape is that of your head. I'm not talking about a Solange-style, free-flying freak fro, as beautiful as that is. More along the lines of Alek Wek, who has an enviously perfect-shaped head. I do not. But moving on.
Midway through the haircut, administered by a young, fully tattooed and slightly humorless Polish woman, I reiterated what I had told her when I first sat down: "Just cut the length, please don't change the shape." I reiterated this because she was changing the shape. She looked at me in the mirror, emotionless, and said: "I'm sorry, African hair is not my specialty." Um, my hair was born in America. I did not adopt my hair from Africa. Also, maybe mention to me before you start cutting that you're no pro when it comes to "African" hair? I left with a $30-cut that I managed to salvage (as far as I could tell from the front view) when I got home.
Next time, I decided to actually throw some real dollars at a fancy haircut. Luckily, there's a spate of new hair salons that have opened in Williamsburg over the past several months. One in particular that I pass by almost every day during my morning run called High Horse was especially appealing to me. It looked like it might be women-owned — every time I ran by, there were groovy boss-type ladies standing in the doorway wearing black and being all hipster Brooklyn bitch. I wasn't gonna go out like a punk this time, so when I called, I asked the woman who answered, after telling her that I run by their shop and it looks so cool and blah blah blah, if any of the stylists know how to cut "black hair." Her tone quickly changed from flattered to uninvested: "Oh, yeah, no." I felt like I was in an episode of Girls — "Oh, yeah, no. We don't really know any black people in all of fucking Brooklyn." But thanks for calling!
Across the way from High Horse is another relatively new spot called Persons of Interest, which also has an outpost in Carroll Gardens, and describes itself as "a relaxed bureau with good music, quality reading material and above all, quality barber service." So, it's like a hip barbershop: the conceptual love child of Spike Lee and Hal Ashby — Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop meets Shampoo! I called and asked the same question about black hair, and the fellow who answered was lovely and helpful, and told me he wanted to first check with his team at both locations and then call me back. Now this is what I'm talking about, I thought, as I waited for Steve, who turned out to be the owner, to call back. Steve did call back and suggested that I make an appointment with So and So in Williamsburg.
An attractive, racially-ambiguous looking fellow, every bit the Williamsburg barber with his chain wallet and sagging skinny jeans, So and So appeared to listen intently as I explained in no uncertain terms what I wanted, which had not changed from what I told the Polish barber: Just cut the length, do NOT mess with the shape. He was all "I got this." Sure enough, mid-way through, I had to pull my head away from his scissors mid-snip because, that's right, he was changing the shape.
"Why don't you let me do my job, and you can criticize me later," So and So said, after I again tried to explain what it was that I wanted. It just didn't seem that complicated to me. But he was offended now, and I knew I was going to leave that chair with a jacked up haircut. To his absolute credit, Steve did not charge me for the cut, which my 7-year-old son announced made me look like "mohawk mom."
And now I'm offended, and curious. So I called a few other salons in the neighborhood, and got a range of oddly compelling responses. One woman said, clearly talking out of her ass: "Well the person we used to refer ethnic hair to left, but I would say that Tommy could handle it," based on nothing other than her certainty that Tommy "doesn't discriminate." And while I'm sure that's true — no one ever thinks they are being racist toward hair — the guy at Persons of Interest was also apparently able to handle black hair. Not to mention her use of the word "ethnic" made me feel like she was referring to hair on people who live in the African Bush.
The receptionist at Tommy Guns had to "double check," but then came back on the line to let me know with great enthusiasm that "we actually have two stylists" who can deal with black hair (with cuts starting at $95 a head). How does she know? "Well, they actually rotate in between both our locations" (their other spot is on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where there are black people, right?). At another salon, the woman who answered the phone sounded almost indignant that I'd asked: "Yes, as a matter of fact we do have someone who cuts black hair." I told her I didn't want to be difficult, but how could she be sure? "Well, she is black, so, you know." Okey-dokes. Promising-ish.
But perhaps the most perplexing response I got was from a salon that told me they could cut my hair, but only if I'd had it processed first. When I asked if they cut black hair, the receptionist answered: "Actually, not unless it's straightened." So, basically, go somewhere else to make your hair the texture of white hair and then we'll be good to go. Huh.
It seems insane to have to spend time not just researching a basic haircut, but feeling inclined to check the black hair references of hairstylists. And truth be told, if it's going on in Williamsburg, the "hipster capital of Brooklyn," which is the new Manhattan, which is the old center of the universe, it's probably happening in other cities across the country, too.
So hey, salon stylists, you guys seriously need to take a page from the book of Michael Dukakis — who famously learned to cut black hair and worked as an underground barber while a student at Swarthmore, because none of the local barbershops in the area would service black students — and learn how to cut black hair. Or see if Mike D. wants to grab a shift real quick on the side hustle.
Rebecca Carroll is the author of several nonfiction books, including Saving the Race and Sugar in the Raw. She has held editor positions at The Huffington Post, UPTOWN and PAPER magazines, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Marie Claire, The Aesthete, The Daily Beast, and Ebony.