Cutting Across Racial Lines

A meeting between African-American barbers highlights Atlanta’s racial barriers - and hints on how to dissolve them

Originally published In:
The Sunday Paper
Race & Religion

Story & Photos by Will Pollock

Call it Atlanta’s underground racial experiment.

While Super Cuts, Great Clips and other “blow and go” salons have reduced the barber-chair experience to a mindless cattle call for some, metro Atlanta’s locally owned barbershops offer not only a local touch – they are fertile laboratories for racially complex interaction.

Kedar Ras is co-owner of
Clubhouse Barbershop, a predominately African-American-operated and frequented establishment in Sandy Springs. Despite the ubiquitous barber pole affixed both inside and out, the humble, unassuming Ras says Caucasian patrons walk in and react with surprise, paralysis and panic.

Kedar Ras, left, and George Lollar, seated, right

“You see a nice barbershop in Sandy Springs and you don’t think black guys,” Ras says. “Especially the way it’s set up – like a traditional parlor. We had one white guy come in here and say, ‘Uh, I’m not going to walk out with an Afro, am I?’ We ended up talking to him, you know, just easing his nervous ignorance.”

Clubhouse’s handsome, old-school outfit – complete with gleaming, antique-chrome barber chairs, marble paneling and traditional lighting – eventually won the man over. By the end of that visit, Ras says, the once-reserved patron felt fully at home. “He ended up getting a fantastic haircut and we shot the breeze for a long time.” The customer returned and is now a regular.

Ras adds that fear of the unknown makes some visitors backpedal the moment they enter. “I don’t know any way to convey our message other than go out and hold a sign up that says, ‘we cut white guys.’”

Ras swapped this and other stories with fellow barber George Lollar, who came for a visit up in Sandy Springs on a weekday afternoon. Lollar, also African-American and a barber with
Nadine’s Triple Crown salon in Virginia Highlands, contemplates those same racial and cultural cross-currents, but from a different perspective. Nadine’s is a stylish, airy salon with lofty ceilings, inset TVs, rich woods and classic fixtures – and hosts a largely white clientele.

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Lollar has had “fish out of water” experiences with customers, too. He retold the story of one skeptical customer, a black man, who called ahead looking for a classic men’s barber cut for African Americans. Keira, Nadine’s’ receptionist, said they had an African American on staff.

“So he said, ‘I understand. But can he cut?’” Lollar remembers. The gentleman ended up coming in after some reassuring. “And that’s just it. I can tell you that I think and I believe I’m good. I can tell you to look on the Internet and read the reviews about me - but until you sit in the chair and let me do it, you’re not going to know.”

The irony, Ras says, is that African American men are far more meticulous about haircuts than their white counterparts. “For white guys with longer hair, they want it styled a little and there’s a huge question mark as to whether or not we can do it,” he says. “And in a lot of cases we do it better than the Great Clips, the Sporty Clips, the Knockouts. We do it way better than them.

“I don’t know where the apprehension comes from,” Ras continues. “It takes double the skill to cut a black person’s hair. White guys have no line in the front and don’t taper in the back; it’s already standing up. African Americans are way more meticulous about a haircut overall, so you have to be twice as careful. And they come more in frequently. White guys might get a haircut once a month, where a black guy gets a haircut once a week. We’re completely broken in and ready before the first white client comes in.”

Lollar says that barbers of all stripes have a reciprocal opportunity and obligation to engage customers – all of them, irrespective of race. With a bit of legwork and prodding, he adds, a frightened man in an unfamiliar circumstance can be turned into a captive audience – a wildly enthusiastic fan who returns for years.

“In a perfect world, everyone would be grey,” Lollar says. “If everybody looked the same, there wouldn’t be an issue. If every job paid the same and everybody was equal – barbershops would be the perfect place. Because we have no boundaries. There would be no difference or no discrimination lines. It’d be real simple.

“But we’re not grey,” he added. “And people still have, sorry to say, their prejudices and hang-ups on a black man going to go see a white man or a white man going to go see a black man. Sometimes we get stuck on stupid; we are afraid to address the questions of servicing someone who doesn’t look like us, and afraid to step outside of our comfort zones. You can’t ever let color blind you.”

On the point that frightened customers can and do see the light, both Ras and Lollar agree that the feeling of resolution can be euphoric.

“It’s the civil rights movement every week in here,” Ras says. “And you have to accomplish something with the movement every week with clients. In the beginning, you know, you’re just on edge with new people. We’ve had to run out to the parking lot after them and say, ‘Hey, look, man. We got you. It’s not gonna take that long. Come on back in here. Relax.’ And, later, when you hit a home run with a client like that? Oh, man, it’s like nothing else.”

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