Once, I had a barber whom I really liked.
Actually, that’s not really true. In truth, we had nothing in common. He was your stereotypical “huntin’ & fishin’ type guy”. Me? Let’s just say the “salsa on my chips was made in New York City” (all the cowboys respond, “NEW YORK CITY?!?!”)
And yet, I loved the way he cut my hair. He seemed to understand it, as no one up to that point had. I have extremely thick hair, which is the object of much envy by older guys. It’s true I will most certainly never go bald, and even my grandfather had a full head of hair when he died at 78.
My hair’s fullness does present certain barbering problems. Basically, it shows every cut. So whomever trims it can never make a casual cut in the process. But this barber was a master craftsman, and I was thrilled to finally be getting an excellent cut I never needed to doctor later with large quantities of hair gel.
One day I was in his shop, getting a cut as a national cable news channel played in the background. President Obama was speaking, about what I can’t remember. But I will never forget the words that came out of my barber’s mouth, as he listened to the speech with disgust.
“Stupid Ni**er!”, he said, as he nonchalantly continued to cut my hair.
I think I stopped breathing for about 10 seconds. Not only because his words took the wind out of me, but also because I was holding my breath, trying to think of what to do. I was deeply offended. Even as a lifelong Southerner, it must have been 25 years since I had heard that word used in daily conversation. I remember a distant uncle whom I didn’t know and didn’t care to know who used it once at the Thanksgiving dinner table. I sat there stunned, paralyzed, not knowing what to do…much like I had in my barber’s chair. Unfortunately, not much about the situation nor about me had changed.
So I sat there. I didn’t get up, though I thought about doing so for several minutes. But after I thought a while, the moment had passed and he was on to other subjects. To get up then would have seemed anti-climactic. I reasoned I had missed my moment, and figured I needed to just forgive the slur and move on.
The fact that I really like the way the guy cut my hair had no bearing on my silence. At least, that’s what I told myself over the next several days dealing with my “white guilt”.
Several months passed, and a few haircuts went by without incident.
Then it happened again. Same scenario – news channel, story about the president doing something the barber didn’t like, same word.
It was at the end of the haircut this time, so I simply paid and walked out. And I kept walking from that point on. No, I did not turn and give a rousing, self-righteous speech, though I’ve often wondered if I should have. But I knew this guy, a died-in-the-wool redneck and proud of it. I knew from his attitude and general stubborn demeanor the speech would do no good.
So I voted with my feet, never to return. And millions cheered.
Of course, I’m making fun of my little stand. And yes, it was quite a small one. And while somehow racism has managed to survive the big woopin’ I gave it that day (yes, that’s sarcasm there), I think it was important, at least for me, that I take it…even though I should have stood up much earlier.
I won’t try to pretend I was injured by the statement, because as a white man I cannot comprehend the devastation that word has on my black brethren. But I can say I was offended.
I was offended for every African-American I have known and respected, for my black brother-in-law, and for the black teenager who lives in my home and for whom I’m a foster dad. Most of all, I was offended as an American, that someone would speak of our president in such a disrespectful manner. More than insulting Mr. Obama, it insulted me that my barber thought I would ever be OK with him speaking such filth in my presence.
More than anything, I felt like I needed a shower.
Earlier today, an African-American friend of mine posted a question on Facebook. He asked what had each of us really done to bring King’s dream to life. It’s a valid question, and one that made me feel a little guilty at first. I thought back to my barber and my beloved lost haircut and immediately was embarrassed at what a small stand it was.
But then again…
Most of us will never give a great speech like King’s “I Have a Dream”, with words that will catch the ear of eternity. But I don’t think that’s what God asks of us.
What God is asking…no, expecting us to do, is to stand. Wherever we are, and whenever the opportunity presents itself. And to not make excuses like I did the first time that hateful word was forced into my hearing. Sure, your stand is probably not going to stop riots or bring world peace. But it is God’s calling for each of us – to take our stand, even if it is only in some small, insignificant way.
Mine was to walk away from the best haircut I’d had. Not a big sacrifice by any means, but one of many we all must be prepared to make. For it’s the little people taking a stand for what is right, in little insignificant ways, that will win the fight.
Maybe that’s the way we change the world – not just with speeches and marches – but one “haircut” at a time.