triumph over barberism

maxineheadI love barbershops for the banter and cruisy atmosphere that seems to go with the territory. This morning before work though, I walked into a barbershop in central Melbourne and had an exchange which damaged this love affair considerably. It went something like this:
Me: Can I please get a buzz cut? (to the three barbers sitting around chatting to the one customer)
Barber 1: No. We don’t do women’s haircuts
Me: Okay. I just wondered if you would give me a buzz cut
Barber 1: (looking at me like I’m deranged) I said we don’t do women’s haircuts
Me: (pointing to the one customer) Isn’t he getting a buzz cut?
Barber 1: He’s a man
Me: But you don’t look very busy. Could you please give me the same cut as him, on a blade two? (Here it’s worth noting that a blade two buzz is my normal monthly haircut, and my current cut, while this exchange was going on, was about a grade five blade all over)
Barber 2: Umm… he said we don’t do women’s cuts.

I probably should have walked out then and there but I, perhaps stupidly, decided to pursue the matter.

Me: The thing is, you list a buzz cut on your board and I want a buzz-cut. What you’re saying is I can’t have the cut listed for the price listed because I have ovaries. (I know, I know, but it was Monday morning and I’d been up half the night writing and was in a foul mood)
Barber 3: (under his breath, but deliberately audible to me) Bloody hell.
Barber 2: (under his breath, but deliberately audible to me) I think she’s some kind of feminist or something
Manager: (appearing from the back room where he had obviously been eavesdropping). Just do the cut
Barber 1: What?
Manager: I said just do the cut.

The result of all this was that I walked out of there with a very sharp grade two and feeling very happy with myself for so fiercely smashing through the gender barrier.

Seriously though, the encounter brought me back to my time working as an intern at an Anti-Discrimination Board. I was totally green, and excited to be finally getting a shot at saving the world from bigotry. One of my tasks was to (wo)man the incoming calls. The first call I took went something like this:

Me: Hello, Anti-Discrimination Board (and I dutifully informed the person I was an intern, but that there was a qualified complaints handler listening in, and ask whether they minded me taking the call).
Caller: (after she got over me being an intern) Umm… I work in this factory, and my boss has brought in all of these kind of, well, Asians to do work, and some of my colleagues don’t like them.
Me: Okay…(the staff member allocated to monitor me gestured wildly at me not to speak yet,but I was getting over-excited because it sounded like it would be a meaty one)
Caller: Actually, I don’t like them either, if you know what I mean. They just don’t belong there and they speak their own language and their food smells and well, we want to know whether we can do anything about it. Like get rid of them or something.

This wasn’t a prank call, the discriminator was actually complaining, and asking for assistance to discriminate. At this point, the call was taken over by the complaints handler, who painstakingly explained exactly what discrimination was, and what the Board’s role was.

Over the course of my time there, I came to realise exactly how many calls were of this nature. A man once rang in and said his daughter was going out with a Tongan, which he professed he didn’t have a problem with, but since his daughter was ‘not much of a looker to say the least,’ and the Tongan boyfriend was quite handsome, could I please give him advice on how to check out whether the boyfriend had Australian citizenship or was just using her to try and get a passport or something.

 There were also many clear cut David and Goliath instances of discrimination, and in these cases, multinationals would sometimes send corporate reps into friendly ‘mediation’ sessions with individual complainants, including those for whom English wasn’t a first language and who had no kind of advocacy or representation. Needless to say, I left the place wondering about the effectiveness of the complaint, mediation and tribunal system. Had the barbershop refused me, I really question whether I would have bothered reporting it.

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. And of course a lot of anti-hate legislation actually gets used against oppressed groups, since it tends to be those from the majority who have the resources and the confidence to bring cases to court.
    As for barbers, come to Footscray. There’s a fantastic hairdresser I walk past going to lunch. It’s called Sexy Hair. How can anyone not like a barber called Sexy Hair?

  2. I presume, Jeff, that the “Sexy Hair” salon is Vietnamese-run like most in Footscray, in which case it would also charge only $9 per haircut, and while they would be bemused at a woman wanting a buzzcut, they would never piss off a customer by saying “no”.
    I’ve had my hair cut in Footscray or St Albans for 18 years now (by Vietnamese hairdressers) so I speak with some authority on this. (or at least the authority of a man with slightly girly hair).
    Incidentally my last haircut was a bit confusing because I was asked whether I wanted a “Caesar cut”. I was all at sea, trying to remember what Big Julie’s hair looked like (wasn’t he balding?). It took me a while to realise that she wanted to know whether I wanted to cut my hair with scissors or go the buzzcut.
    Anyway…given how desperate most hairdressers are for business, I can only think, Maxine, that your barber shop must be over-priced and trendy to knock back business on such a basis.
    Take a trip to Footscray is all I say. Order the Sexy Hair number 2 and see how it goes.

  3. Yeah, there are some cool salons in Footscray. Only last time I came to visit Overland, I checked an Egyptian and African one out and the Egyptian one tried to convince me I needed skin bleaching cream – in fact, you should check them out – both of them have shelves and shelves of skin whiteners, I mean, hundreds of them: something I’ve never seen before in Australia in that kind of volume…it made me really sad.

    But I think I will try your Sexy Hair. Although I doubt how much sexier you can make a blade two buzz cut…The barbershop I went to was a random dingy one near Melbourne Central, and the buzz cut cost $12!

  4. Great article I haven’t laughed this hard for quite some time.

    I suggest going to “Sexy Hair” salon not only for the very cheap and good hair cuts but the owner is very entertaining. His hair rivals that of Ray Martin in his hay-day and his shirts are more outrageous than those of Irons Chef’s Chairman Kaga.

  5. Now I really have to get there…Sexy Hair here I come. Are you all taking kick-backs from the place or something?

    Jeff, your comment about anti-hate legislation is right on the mark. Michael X, the leader of the London Black Panthers, was the first to be tried under the UK’s anti-hate legislation that was specifically enacted to protect the black community….oh yeah, but then he did publicly advocate the killing of black women taking up with white men, so maybe that’s not a great example.

    I do think a lot of the time the symbolic act, rather than the legal Act is more the point (ie: We, as a society, officially condemn this practice…etc)…

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