Tip Your Barber / by Matthew Ponder

Much like the Christian church, barbershops and salons have served as a staple within the African-American community albeit with much less controversy. Very few industries exist in modern society where loyalty between the producer and consumer remain constant. An author by the name of Barry Schwartz touches on this phenomena in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice.’ He explores how the seemingly-endless range of consumer options may create dilemmas of the psychological and emotional variety. Schwartz expresses this view claiming:

“Whether we’re buying a pair of jeans, selecting a long-distance carrier, choosing a doctor, or setting up a 401(k), everyday decisions—from the mundane to the profound challenges of balancing career, family, and individual needs—have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice with which we are presented. We assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of choice overload.”

The urban barbershop being a necessity industry happens to be an exception to Schwartz’ theory. Many African-Americans have supported these barbershops and salons because simply- no other businesses are equipped to properly manage ethnic hair types. This limitation has only strengthened the influence of most shops within these communities. Ironically enough, African-American barbers often wear many hats beyond their job title. My personal barber Brian Hill, embodies that notion.

Brian, like most entrepreneurs has always been enterprising and self-motivated. I recently sat in his chair located in Atlanta, Georgia and discussed not only his origin but his role within the community. Brian, who has been cutting his own hair since he was nine years old (to the bewilderment of his peers) is now thirty with his own shop and a family of employees and regulars who rely on him daily. Eight years ago he moved from Virginia to Georgia, graduated from Atlanta Technical College and has been committed to his community and his family since. Brian, who has a pre-teen son, frequently expresses the importance of accountability and ethic. His presence in the neighborhood represents a message of success and progression for young men who may be devoid of domestic stability and strong self-image.

Many of my earliest lessons about life as an African-American male originate not from school or organized sports but from my local barbershop. Comparable to a watering hole within the animal kingdom, these shops are a revolving door of characters, each with their own wealth of knowledge to share. No matter the city, there is never a shortage of discussions or heated debates in an African-American barbershop. The dialogue may range from anything to politics, sports, entertainment, sexuality or just humorously dramatic anecdotes. Historically, America has been a volatile environment for men of color. It is for this reason, a seemingly insignificant trip to the barber may feel like a Muslim’s pilgrimage to Mecca.

Recent data from the NAACP shows that spending on prisons and jails has increased at triple the rate of spending on Pre‐K‐12 public education in the last thirty years, with African Americans being incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. A criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent which leaves many men of color out of work in America. Barbershops regularly provide these men opportunities to work when options are limited which aids in slowing the rate of recidivism. The barbershop is a staple of the African American experience and it should never be undervalued. Please be sure to tip!