Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 put an end to all official segregation, there are still some places in the USA where black and white Americans don’t mix very much.
I have often heard that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America, with most churches recruiting their flock from one race only. But in my experience, the most segregated places are barber shops (not only in America, by the way).
I once stayed with some friends in Harlem for a week and went to get a haircut. I stepped into a barber shop, uttered a greeting, and at least 10 dark-skinned heads turned towards me, looking surprised. (I am white.) “How can I help you?” the guy who looked like the head barber asked, breaking the silence after a few seconds during which people kept staring at me. He sounded as if he expected me to ask for directions to the AA meeting. “I would like to get a haircut, if it’s possible,” I explained my presence. The barber was shocked, although one would assume that providing haircuts was the purpose of the institution I had stepped into.
When my turn had come, the barber was noticeably at unease with my hair. He cut away tiny portions, not making much of a difference, and worked very slowly, as if he was afraid of committing a mistake. I tried to encourage him to cut a bit more. “It grows back quite quickly,” I reassured him as if talking about a species of plants he had never seen before. In the end, I paid the 10 $ more for the experience and the conversation because my hair pretty much looked the same. When I got home, I used an electric razor to cut the rest myself.
A year later I lived in Tottenham in London and visited another barber shop which was run and frequented by blacks only. It was simply the closest barber shop to my house. I wore a suit on my first visit and earned scared looks when I stepped into the little shop. “Are you here for the taxes?” was the welcome I encountered. I was happy to negate that. “No, I am just here for a haircut,” I replied, adding my hopefully reassuring smile. The first haircut took around 45 minutes, which is about three times as long as it should. Still, I became a regular. After about half a year, I saw another white client, and I thought to myself “progress at last in the fight against segregation”.