What kind of Man am I?
Let’s jump right in: Manchester, last summer, on the way to get my haircut.
I’d been to these guys a couple of times before. They’ve got a real vibe there, old petrol-head, James Dean, fifties-style fit-up. Beer in the queue. Chats about Nortons and Triumphs. Generic football and holiday chats were a no-go: just the way I like it.
I pass by the window of the barbers, outside which is a wrought-iron table and chair – like those garden sets you see in period dramas.
There they are. My saviours. Waistcoats and cutthroats.
Snip snip. Snip snip.
‘Take a seat man, we’ll be right with you.’
The guy at the desk takes my coat, hangs it on the vintage coat stand in the corner and goes back to talking to one of the barbers about a tattoo sleeve he’s going to get.
I’ve always thought about getting a sleeve.
I settle in on the bench seats.
Yeah, these are my people.
Snip snip. Snip snip.
I’m third in the queue. There’s a Dad and his son and a lad in his twenties.
Banter flies back and forth between the barbers; northern barbs barked at each other above the buzz of the clippers. The surface stuff, the stuff that kind of makes my skin itch a bit, that should set alarm bells ringing, but here, in this little arcade, in this particular moment, I enjoy it.
Yeah, my people.
I flick through the paper, look at motorbikes I’ll never own, in a bike magazine I never buy.
My partner comes in and sits down next to me, she’s never been in before.
The guy behind the desk is coming round, probably to ask if my partner wants anything to drink.
‘We’re all good for drinks, thanks’ I say.
‘No, sorry, she can’t sit in.’
There’s a pause.
‘We have a no women policy.’
But…these are my people.
You know, snip snip?
My partner and I look at him.
‘Yeah, sorry man, she has to leave.’
Still we look. A. No. Women. Policy. I think about that for a second.
‘She can wait outside if you want.’
I look out the window. Fuck.
The table and chair.
Magazines on top. Cosmopolitan. Heat.
‘I can’t just sit here?’ My partner asks.
My spidey-sense tingles.
‘No, sorry duck, it’s our policy. You can wait outside. There’s a table with magazines.’
She stands up.
– she puts her hands up –
And with that she walks out.
I apologise and follow her out.
‘What’s up?’ I say.
‘Fuck that, I’m not waiting outside on a separate chair and table.’
‘Why are you so angry?’
‘They want me to sit outside; two metres away from you, separated by a glass window while you get your haircut inside. What fucking year are we in?’
‘It’s just a weird policy. Do you want to do some stuff while I get my hair cut?’
For ten minutes the conversation went through versions of that same exchange.
At the time, I was pissed off about my barnet. Pissed off I didn’t get to bluff my way through more motorbike chat.
But now, I couldn’t be happier I didn’t go back to get my hair cut that day.
I’d like to think I’m an advocate of feminism. It makes sense to me. I talk about it with my friends. I read books about it. But in a way, all of that counted for jack shit. In this tiny little fifties flashback in Manchester, I couldn’t understand why my partner was so upset. I couldn’t empathise.
And then it hit me: of course not. I’m a middle-class white guy. According to the world I’ve grown up in, I am in the ascendancy. I am the paradigm. It hit me that I have absolutely, positively, one-hundred-per-cent no idea what it means to be discriminated against, because I never have been.
So as I sat on a bench next to a guy selling the Big Issue, my empathy switch got flicked.
I got angry. Really pissed off. I wanted to go back there and shout abuse at them. Tell them they were sexist misogynist pricks. Put a brick through the window. I didn’t. I tweeted them. Wrote a facebook status about it. Forty likes. And I felt better, felt like I’d expunged my sins.
But it was all just shame. The desire to lash out, to strike back? Shame. Shame cascading around my head, because at the core of the whole event was my failure to understand or appreciate how a loved one might have felt. Shame of failure when they had asked for help. Shame of constantly asking for help and support and troubleshooting and giving none back. Shame felt because we ‘made a scene’, that strangers might’ve seen us arguing, that I had brought in a woman into this all-male environment and she had caused a (completely legitimate, I realise now) fuss. It was that age-old twin-headed beast; pride and selfishness running riot in the bone china department inside my head.
To quote Brene Brown, rarely does a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.
This barbers stuck in the 1800s showed me that being a woman in the world is sometimes really fucking hard for what can seem like no reason at all. Which sounds obvious, I know. But as a white man I have a huge amount of privilege for free, for no reason other than I was born with the ‘right‘ chromosomes. So it feels to me that I have a responsibility to get to understand why this stuff is not okay and to stand up and say ‘you’re right, this is not okay’. Because that helps me with my own journey as a man, and helps me understand why my journey has it’s own difficulties, what they are and what I can do about it.
I’ve since discovered that the barbers have opened a new site in Spitalfields. And they refused to cut a trans guy’s hair in their branch in Liverpool. It’s spreading, and I have little patience for them. It’s not a bit of fun; it’s not a light-hearted policy that gives men a refuge from the outside world.
We’re not seeking asylum, we’re not in danger. Please, it’s 2016, it’s a place you get your haircut. Don’t believe the hype.