Cutting through the pandemic: the value of Black barbershops
On the 10th April 2021, just a couple of days before hairdressers, barbers and nail salons were allowed to reopen, Joe, the owner of a Black barbershop in Lambeth, South London, explained to me “some of them lost 20-30% of their salaries, a haircut will be the last thing on their mind”.
He was referring to his customers, mostly Black men, who prior to the pandemic had frequented his shop for conversation, counselling, debate, laughter, connection, respite, and a haircut. Since the start of the pandemic, they have not returned in the same numbers they once did. Joe’s shop is the focus of my research, exploring the social and cultural significance of two Black barbershops for the local communities they serve in South London.
Barbershops as gatekeepers to the community
The pandemic has shone a light on how Black barbershops are seen as trusted spaces and can act as information hubs in their localities, and important gatekeepers to so-called ‘hard-to-reach’ communities.
Over in the U.S., the University of Maryland’s Center for Health Equity recognises this. Their community-based HAIR (Health Advocates in-Reach and Research) intervention creates an infrastructure to engage barbershops and beauty salons as a site for health education and the delivery of healthcare services in the community. Most recently, this has included setting up one barbershop as a Covid-19 vaccination clinic in a Washington D.C. suburb where Black and Latino barbers have been dispelling myths about Covid-19 vaccines and consulting with the community, when doing their haircuts.
These interventions are culturally sensitive, accessible and make a mockery out of the stale public service announcements we’ve become used to. Similar community focused work has been implemented in Britain, but local authorities should continue to take heed of this innovative advocacy work and invest in similar initiatives that work in collaboration with BME groups who have been most vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic.
Here in the UK, community initiatives in Black barbershops have also showcased the important role these businesses can play in public health. Projects such as Mind My Hair, Hear My Mind launched in 2015 by Off the Record youth counselling charity in Croydon, was designed to raise conversations about Black and minority ethnic men’s mental health. And a new first of its kind collaborative project between London South Bank University, Off the Record and Croydon BME Forum is currently underway to train barbers in measuring and giving advice about blood pressure to their customers. Work by a Nottingham BME cancer charity has also demonstrated how barbershops can be effective places to disseminate information and raise awareness about prostate cancer amongst Black men.
My research documents the significance of Black barbershops in the everyday lives of the communities they serve. Even experts within the business sector recognise the social impact of small, Black-led businesses, and suggest they should not be measured in hard financial terms. A 2020 report by The Federation of Small Businesses recommends that the government must do better to understand, and help to enhance, the crucial role these businesses can play in their localities. In the context of the pandemic, this is needed more than ever as businesses like Joe’s barbershop struggle to stay afloat.
Small Black businesses, pre-existing inequalities, and the threat of Covid-19
Back in April 2021, Joe was right to be concerned about his customers’ depleted resources. By May 2021 the unemployment rates for Black and minority ethnic workers had risen by more than three times that of white workers. And in the year to September 2021, Black people had the highest rates of unemployment (11%), compared with 4% for white people. During the lockdowns, some of the people behind these statistics - like Joe’s customers - would call him up about their plight seeking advice from the man many of them called Uncle.
Evidence suggests that Black-led businesses like Joe’s were already experiencing inequalities pre-pandemic. They were less likely to obtain mainstream business support , had reduced access to credit, paid higher interest rates on overdrafts and were more likely to be rejected for business loans. Given the existing barriers they faced, recent findings which showed that almost half of BME-led businesses didn’t plan to access, or expect to qualify for, government support schemes available during the pandemic is unsurprising.
For people like Joe, none of the issues he had to navigate have gone away. In fact, they’ve been exacerbated by Covid. Working out of a gentrified neighbourhood, his rent has been doubled, whilst his customers have halved. As he gradually tries to return to ‘business as usual’, he’s struggled to access and obtain the economic support he desperately needs to recover, and I’ve witnessed the future of his shop come under real threat for the first time ever. The loss of his livelihood would not only be a personal tragedy, it would leave a gaping hole in the community.
As small Black businesses up and down the country struggle to bounce back from the pandemic, supporting their recovery should be a key aim. Not only will it help repair our local economies, it can help to enhance and protect the health and wellbeing of communities who have been at the sharp end of the pandemic.
Author: Dr Karis Campion, Legacy in Action Research Fellow Stephen Lawrence Research Centre