Black Men and Women Have for Centuries Put Themselves in Social Quarantine

Wil Shelton discusses the mask black people must wear and why.

We must always wear a mask in public that can only be removed at home, in church, or segregated spaces such as salons and barbershops.

Salons and barbershops provide a safe space for combing through the tangled emotions of being black in America. 

George Floyd’s recent murder has brought much-needed attention to what it’s like navigating systematic racism in America. We witnessed a veneer of complacency erupt into violence in the streets of our nation as centuries of racial injustice were finally brought to the surface.

The events that brought us to this point of reckoning have been intensified by the Coronavirus pandemic, which also affects African Americans—and especially those in poverty—more gravely than it affects other races. Thus, all at once, the world is more clearly seeing what black men, women, and children are up against every day. Yet even those who stand in solidarity with African Americans may not fully grasp the high levels of cultural PTSD black families live with or how they have learned to compartmentalize, carry, and cope with those painful feelings in isolation.

Before there were protests against police brutality, many Americans were protesting against the essential shelter-in restrictions of COVID-19, feeling that not being allowed to go where they want, do what they want, and see whom they wish to as an assault on their constitutional rights. That is a first for them, but nothing new for the black community. The reality is that these types of restrictions have always been in place for African Americans who have been “sheltering in” for over 400 years. There have always been parts of town we can’t visit at certain times of day, parts of the country where we are not welcome, and restrictions on the types of stores, venues, events, and even schools we are allowed into. 

Conversely, for centuries, black men and women have put themselves in social quarantine—though it wasn’t called that—to protect themselves from viral racism. That’s because there are no anti-bodies or plasma treatments that can be used to cure the pandemic of racism that we face daily. We inherently know that we must always wear a mask in public that can only be removed at home, in church, or segregated spaces such as salons and barbershops.

When we are elsewhere, and someone is dismissive or demeaning to us, we must endlessly question and decipher whether it was intentional or unconscious bias because responding the wrong way can be lethal, so we respond with a mask to save face. This is not a physical mask, but one constructed to mask our indignities with fake smiles, forced silence, and careful gestures that protect us from appearing to challenge authority, offend, or otherwise overstep imposed boundaries. In short, it is a cultural mask we have been forced to wear to function and keep ourselves alive in a world where others have the power to harm us without recourse. It is how we have avoided the knee that is always waiting to try and pin our necks to the ground.

This phenomenon of constantly monitoring how we present ourselves to the outside world while preserving our genuine self for safe, African American only zones has been called the “double-consciousness” of African Americans. This state represents the conflicted internal dialogue we hold to maintain dual consciousness, which is enough to make anyone feel crazy. And there are even times when our people—confused by this duality—turn on us for not upholding our culture and being “black enough.”

According to the Guardian, even mega-star Whitney Houston felt this constant pressure. She said, “Sometimes it gets down to ‘You’re not black enough for them. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.” She said this while reflecting on the first significant setback of her career when she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards. By that stage, she had already won 11 American Music Awards, two Grammys, achieved the biggest-selling debut album by a female artist in history, and a record-breaking seven consecutive US number-one singles. But, despite all this success, some black radio stations refused to play her records.

No matter how it manifests, racism is an assailant that reduces one’s self-worth and self-value. When racism is directed at you, it is so humiliating. It’s like watching your own body being lowered into a grave of depravity. The long-term effect of such emotional and mental gymnastics is bone-deep, generational exhaustion. This is why, as African Americans, we need places of refuge where we don’t need to read the room before entering. We can go to be among our people, speak in the way we want, and freely express what is in our hearts without fear of reprisal.

On the weekend, venues like churches, salons, and barbershops are some of the most segregated places in America. Yet, they are also the places African Americans often go to remove their masks and reconnect to our culture without the undercurrent of cognitive dissonance.

Since the early 1800s, barbershops and salons have represented both a place to literally and figuratively let our hair down and a place of cultural unity and even social justice. Much of the civil rights movement occurred in salons and barbershops, with a vast network of hundreds of stylists rallying in support of systemic change.

According to the article making waves, “With a source of income that came largely from the black community itself, black beauticians were financially autonomous and outside the control of white employers. Additionally, black beauty parlors were independent, black-controlled spaces free from the surveillance of white supremacists; the parlors provided shelter for civil rights organizing in an otherwise hostile environment. Finally, it was the profits from these shops that paid the rental on the buses that sent marchers to Washington, D.C., printed T-shirts and protest signs, supported movement leaders who lost their jobs and homes, and bailed protesters out of jail.”

Since then, stylists and barbers have offered a haven from the daily micro-aggression African Americans often experience at work and in public spaces. So subtle that most people could not detect it. In addition to our homes and church, salons and barbershops offer us a place of respite. Stylists rinse away pain and discomfort. They blow dry the stress and anxiety away, leaving nothing but a feeling of total relaxation. Symbolically each stroke of the brush and comb symbolizes brushing out the distractions of life and combing through the tangle of obstacles that stand between us and our goals. 

How African Americans style their hair can be as much a political statement as a personal one because it almost always reveals something about who they are and where they want to go in life. A hairstyle can be like the armor of adornment in a world where everything you do and say is judged.

A simple day at the salon or barbershop can empower African Americans with a trusted ally by their sides who can help them make that armor shine to navigate the minefield of social signals that black hair represents. They can also help ensure that we see ourselves for who we are when we look into the mirror.

African American salons and barbershops offer a blueprint for how America should be. A place where everyone who enters can relax, express themselves freely, and get the support they need to be who they want to be. But this can’t happen in America until every member of our society is allowed to put down the mask without fearing that they will lose their job, home, or lives.

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