No doubt some readers will find fault with this blog. But, as my long-time priest friend frequently told me, “It’s never wrong to tell the truth.” The following vignette happened just as I relate it. To deny the racism and xenophobia and religious bigotry kindled in America since the 2016 presidential election is a disservice to the past. Too many people suffered to make America a more tolerant place, a place of equality and fairness. As Salman Rushdie once wrote, the role of the artist—be it painter, writer, or poet—is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and to stop it from going to sleep.”
About a year ago, I went to my barber for a haircut. The place was like other barbershops I have frequented in my life that were geared toward a male clientele. On the wall hung mounted deer heads, antlers, and turkey feathers and turkey beards. A few mounted ducks and fish also adorned the walls. The magazines lying about were all related to hunting and fishing.
I was sitting there looking through one of the magazines when a young black man walked in and sat down in an empty chair next to me. I should preface this by telling you that the small Midwest town is also a college town. While the population of the town is a little over 17,000, the local universities (two of them) draw about 7,000-8,000 students each year, including a couple hundred students from as far away as Vietnam, China, and Africa. Every year, my family “adopts” a couple foreign students, inviting them to our home and to join us for numerous outings throughout the year. We learn about their culture, and they learn more about what life in an American family is like.
I recognized the young Black man from campus, just three blocks away. I think he was majoring in business or accounting. He was dressed appropriately; he was courteous and respectful. I say this knowing that clothes do not make the man. What I mean to say is that he was a young man, like every young man, in need of a haircut. When he came in there was only one other customer waiting his turn, an old white farmer who had arrived before I did. From the minute the young man arrived, I saw the expression on the faces of the two barbers when they saw him. Their expression screamed, “Go away! You’re not welcome here.”
Minutes later, one of the barbers finished with his customer, a white man, and he called the old white farmer who had come in before me, leaving only me and the young man. Just then another old white man came in and sat down.
The second barber was finishing with his customer, whisking hair from the back of his neck with a brush. He looked at me.
“Next,” he said.
I was curious. I could see where this was headed.
“He’s next,” I said, nodding at the young Black man sitting quietly beside me. I returned to reading my magazine to signal my intent.
Instead of calling up the young man, the barber called the other old white man up, the one who came in after the young Black man.
I think at that moment he and I both knew the score. For me, it was the first time I was witness to such blatant racism in this small town. For him, it was probably the hundredth.
Just as the other barber finished, another older white farmer came through the door.
“Morning, Fred! Come on up,” said the one barber as he patted his empty chair.
I was growing angry. This was America in 2017. The demonstrations in Ferguson, just three hours south, were still fresh in the minds of Americans and the world. During the demonstrations, I had heard too many folks say, “There’s no racism in America.” People who say that are blind.
A few minutes later, one of the two barbers finished with his customer. He looked at me and told me it was my turn.
“He came in before me,” I replied, pointing at the young Black man sitting beside me. He smiled back, knowing full well I was already seated when he came in.
The barber looked frustrated.
I know it wasn’t much—no march across a bridge into the waiting arms of a violent, angry mob armed with billy clubs, but it was my protest, my little act of social justice. I had learned from reading Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and even Jesus, that “compassion means justice.” People of conscience must act in the face of injustice. Prayer is never enough.
Instead of calling up the young man, the barber took off his apron and turned to the other barber.
“I’m going on my lunch break,” he said.
I looked at my watch. It wasn’t even close to noon yet. The racist barber would rather leave than touch the head of a Black man.
Just then another white man came in and he was immediately instructed to take the barber’s chair.
“You’re next George,” said the barber. “Go ahead and sit and that chair and I’ll get to you as soon as I finish here.”
George looked at me and the young man already seated and waiting. I remember the puzzled look on his face, as if to say, “But there’s two people in front of me.”
Finally, I turned to the young Black man and offered that we leave. I told him I’d take him to another barber shop up the road. He agreed. The other place, a national hair cutting chain, treated us equally. I never went back to that barber shop with the corpses from the past displayed on the walls like the way they displayed the racism of the past.
The purpose of this story was not to illuminate the fact that racism still exists in the Land of the Free where every man is said to have been created equal and with equal rights; the world doesn’t need me to point that out. The question this story poses is a simple one. How are we to bridge our differences, to learn to recognize the humanity in every human being, if we are unwilling even to touch the other person?
John Smelcer is the author of over 50 books. His writing appears in over 500 periodicals published worldwide. In the spring of 2015, he “discovered” the worldly possessions of Thomas Merton, taken from his hermitage immediately after his death in 1968. John is currently writing a book about the experience and what he learned from it.