Black barbershops have aided in creating emotionally f*cked up black men.

I think many black men suffer from the inability to properly sort through our emotions because as little black boys, we were not afforded the opportunity to do so.

If you’re a black person, regardless of gender, I am almost sure you have heard the following statements by someone you were under the care of.

“Big boys don’t cry.”  Or, the most damaging of the two (to me), “Quit crying like a little girl.”

I can’t remember the first time I heard these two statements, but I can, however, recall the time both of them were said to me in a way that changed how I conducted myself emotionally.

It was the day I received my very first haircut. I can feel myself even now walking behind my dad and along the side of my brother into the barbershop being both nervous and terrified. There was never a discussion about whether or not we wanted to get our hair cut before we got there. We weren’t asked or told what to expect, I guess because to my dad there was no need. The only for sure things I knew walking in was that I did not want to have my hair cut and I had no interest in having a stranger to do it.

Picture this: me, a small-framed little boy sitting uneasily in one of the chairs placed in front of a glass wall that are the eyes of the shop next to my brother. We are both soaking up our surroundings and listening to the variety of conversations buzzing around the shop.

Now, if you know nothing else about a black barbershop on Saturday mornings, know that it can be the safest space for many black men to sit around, exert their masculinity and ego, talk all kinds of shit about women, current affairs and their life problems and feel comfortable doing so. All in a place with people that in essence, are them. This can be a beautiful or traumatic experience depending on where you are in your life. For me, it was the latter.

As I mentioned before, I was not here for the barbershop experience before I even walked in. So when my dad finished his cut and asked my brother and me who was next, my brother nudged me. I walked towards the chair, sat down and allowed the barber to wrap the cape around me. He asked my dad what I was getting, my dad told him, and the clippers turned on.

What. The. Fuck? — that was my thought.

I started flipping out. I remembered being completely terrified of the clippers as most young boys tend to be. Having some foreign and loud object forced upon you with no control as to what the outcome will be is a tough concept to find comfort in for anyone.

Here I am squirming and crying, and all I hear was “if you don’t quit crying like a little girl I’m going to beat your ass.” The real tears came then because of the fear of a whipping which added insult to injury. The thing about the ugly cry is that it is hard to stop when you’ve started — especially when a mixture of emotions causes it. So that happened, and it seemed like the everyone in the barbershop started investing themselves in exchanging dialogue either around me or directly to me. Chanting off their own versions of “(big) boys don’t cry” as a collective.

Eventually, I ended up calming down and getting the haircut, but the damage had been done. It was furthered when we got in the car, and my dad had this talk with us both about not embarrassing him in public.

The initial fear I had of going to the barbershop was amplified by my experience inside of it. I didn’t know how to address my feelings at the time, before, after or during, but I was also never given the space to do so.

Now, this may not seem like a big deal to you as this may not have been your experience. However, for me, after that, I felt like anything that prompted fear in me couldn’t be discussed. I would just move forward beating myself up about that fear. And if my fear were met with an unfortunate emotional response internally, I would suppress those emotions or misdirect them. Remember, big boys don’t cry. And if we don’t cry, what then do we do?

This has caused a many of years to pass by with new experiences that have provoked a wrestling of emotions within, as well as, need to sort through them without my being able to do so. All because my 8 or 9-year-old self showed up as the greeter to those experiences reminding me to bottle my emotions and put on a strong face as to not embarrass anyone else (but myself specifically) just as I was taught to do in the barbershop.

All of this is really fucked up too because we perpetuate the cycle without even knowing we are doing so. We force other men to hide their emotions or not talk about them. We make fun of them or label them as alien when they do so. Which in itself is something that still becomes an incredibly difficult thing to do because, on the other end of that, the world still expects us all to show up as our truest selves, articulating who that person is and bullying us into feeling uncomfortable with not expressing emotion. How Sway?  See how crazy multi-layered all of this?

So here is the deal:

Telling any man that is processing and showing a natural emotion that by doing so makes him weak, or to compare his doing so to a girl as though a girl (or a woman) is weak for doing so, only gives that man an inescapable insecurity. This also adds a heavy weight to the girls and women who receive the backlash of that statement.

You can’t tell a black boy that he can’t cry in his formative years and expect him to become a man that somehow believes that he can.

Problematic language intended to teach actually places our people at the greatest disadvantage. And sadly, the caregivers (although they’ll often never admit this), are just as much to blame as the society that reinforces this way of thinking.


Image Credit:  WNYC 

Also published on Medium.

  • Dr. Nupe

    Another phrase that contributes to this toxic masculinity is “man up.” I also have to give a nod to “be a man.”

  • Patricia Heath

    please don’t be insulted by this, but i knew you were gay by the article. i hadn’t read your bio yet.
    the barbershop is usually empowering for many black boys, or at least that’s what they say. it’s a great place for most of the black men i know of.

    you can’t be this delicate. you just can’t be.
    hell, i can’t be an i’m a female.
    if they coddle you, what happens when it’s time to get off the titty and face the world. the world will never coddle you.

    there’s a whole generation that are saying falsehoods like spankings come from slavery, and you can’t yell at a child or you will damage him. again, you have to go out in the world.

    i think it’s good to have other methods of punishment and correction besides hit first and ask questions later. but if those other methods don’t work, you can’t punk out. you have to do what you gotta do as a parent.

    likewise, this notion of catering to a child in every way, and never pushing him past his fears, or letting him cry for everything past the point when he is a baby…i don’t know about that.

    it’s not just about your feelings. it’s about if you are ready for life itself.
    if you are a big 16 year old boy and you are still bursting into tears when something happens that you don’t like, then what? how do you think that will be taken by your peers, your boss, or your woman?

    • Terry

      “please don’t be insulted by this, but i knew you were gay by the article. i hadn’t read your bio yet.”

      I fail to see how this is remotely relevant to the article or his point in his writing.

      “the barbershop is usually empowering for many black boys, or at least that’s what they say. it’s a great place for most of the black men i know of.”

      This is my main issue with your response,you speak on the subject with no personal experiences. The barbershop does provide a positve community and sense of being around other black men. It does however facilitate an enviroment that can be damaging to understand what it means to be a man. If any woman can’t accept her man expressing his emotions and being able to cry then,she herself is not a woman,but a girl.

      • DJ_Jivin_Johnny

        Says the crybaby. #blackboyjoy

    • Raven Iheme

      Wow, that first paragraph really disgusted me. You’re a woman….how are you going to tell him how he should feel as a man? Have you walked in his shoes before? Were you a man once before? As a someone who used to be in the mental health field and is now in education, I can tell you that that way of thinking in which you displayed is damaging. It doesn’t make you less of a man to display your emotions or cry! He was a small child that was scared, crying would be expected. Black parents always talk about don’t embarrass them but fail to realize that children are a reflection of their parents. Had his father and brother prepped him prior to getting his hair cut or at least allowed him to say that he was scared and talk through his feelings, etc. The situation could’ve played out differently. In the black community, emotions and mental health is ignored heavily and then we wonder why we have certain problems as an adult or in relationships

      • DJ_Jivin_Johnny

        Let the emasculating of the black man begin.

      • Jonathan Tolbert

        The issue is his father, not the barber shop. I imagine that after his first barber shop experience, getting a haircut was no longer a big deal. As it was for me and my 3 sons. The lesson learned is there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Had his father allowed him to cry himself out of getting a haircut, then he would’ve learned is when faced with something new it’s best to cry and run away. That is completely wrong. You must face your fears and when you do 9 times out of 10 you realize there was nothing to be afraid of. Now as a father I made sure to impart that lesson. To me that is more effective, then just Don’t embarrass me again. But there is no manual on being a parent. But as a grown man you should be able to see that and understand there is a time and place for everything. If you can write an article acknowledging that there are times when it’s acceptable to show emotion then there is no need to hold on to its my Dad’s fault. At some point you have to take responsibility for yourself and stop blaming your parents for your short comings. If you can identify a problem then you can fix it. Man/Woman up and take responsibility for yourself.
        I do agree it is wrong to tell boys to stop acting like a girl when identifying weak behavior. But I still think it is much more damaging to teach a child that when dealing with a scary situation the best way to handle it, is to cry. It is the head that leads the body not the heart. Learning to overcome fears is an essential part of being an Adult if you are trying to live a full life.


      shut the fuck up

      • DJ_Jivin_Johnny

        Sensitive much.

    • Twan Twansome Claiborne

      Corporal punishment did derive from slavery. What the hell are you talking about?

      • Random

        I doubt corporal punishment came from slavery. It is the most common form of discipline across “races”. In regards to sensitivity and the barbershop. It can be comforting for many and a little bit uncomfortable for others. There is a reality though and that is that life is difficult. To blame interaction with a group of men 1 or 2 hours every week is a jump I believe. If you take it along with other elements or interactions I would wager that it’s not a negative experience. My dad told me to be tough and be a big boy because I am the older brother. Does that make me an incapable emotionally challenged man. Absolutely not. Like the discourse and appreciate people sharing info. Thanks.

    • DJ_Jivin_Johnny

      I ???? your way of thinking.

  • Pingback: Telling a little black boy to “man up” or “not to cry like a little girl”, to me, is problematic. – Coke and Jack()

  • Know Wright No Wrong

    Very good, thought provoking read (with amazing imagery). This actually inspired the conversation on the latest episode of the Know Wright, No Wrong podcast. We all tried to decipher how the barbershop fucked up the thoughts and emotions of our black men.

  • lawrence_b

    Sorry, but this sounds like a gay rant. Those emotions that you felt, I never did. One of my great, coming of age moments was when I was allowed to go to the barbershop by myself. I was told, be a big boy, so I did, and was proud of myself for not showing my terror. Therefore, I received praise from my dad (which was rarely given out by him) because I was “a big boy”. I am sorry that you did not have the same experiences.

  • heavenleiblu

    Or maybe your father and his cohorts were emotionally immature with a side of fragile masculinity.

    The barbershop has its shit, but that’s dependent on the type of men in it.

    But you got me to click and engage, so you win.

  • MrRickyrightfoot .

    A barber told me when I nervous about talking to a girl “The worst she could do is say no” That put me on forever. You’re sad about not crying; I’m glad I got advice that my dad (who wasn’t around) didn’t give me. Take it for what its worth but those guys show you the way.

  • Campbell Dustin

    Yea, this sounds like some bullshit.

    1. The Barbershop is one of the few safe places for men to talk and build on social matters, unregulated and unfiltered.

    2. Emotionally damaged people are created from broken homes, not barbershops.

    3. I’ve heard more women spend time telling men to “man up”, than other men. So, maybe we should blame beauty shops, BET “Blackbuster” movies, and Beyonce, next.

    Stop scapegoating and own your shit.

  • Brian Ayers

    This has absolutely nothing to do with Black barbershops. “Manning up” has been a necessary experience for boys world-wide before Jesus saw a manger. There is a human survival need for men to suppress emotions and “don’t cry like a girl”.

    To find and kill a rodent in your child’s room is as real as fighting off a wolf pack trying to drag your child off, a lion threatening the village, an army coming to kill everyone or getting fired from a job with your wife 8 months pregnant.

    Part of being a man is to have a high level of control over your emotions that women historically are not required to have (by no means am I taking anything away from women who have had to exercise control in a plethora of circumstances). I am very grateful for my training to control my emotions. I know I can protect my family from all threats foreign and domestic. Every man who has reached that level has gone through the process of getting the “cry baby” in him moved to the side.

    To say that is wrong is to dismiss the men who fight for their country to the man protecting his woman in a dark alley.

    Does it have its cost? Yes. I had a girlfriend call me crying about losing a job. I had absolutely no idea what to say…well I did…but I couldn’t tell her. However, I know that she would completely lose it if I got fired and got so emotionally unhinged that I took the next four months off to get myself together.

    This is not a perfect world. People get threatened and killed as a matter of life. If you were emotionally coddled as a boy, your capacity to protect and provide are reduced. Standing between your woman and a stranger in a dark alley is terrifying. You reach all the way back to the barbershop where those loud buzzing clippers came close to your ears, listen to your father and the other men, don’t cry, man up, kick ass and get your woman out of there.

    Please do not say that there is something wrong with Black men getting together and being themselves. It is offensive. I am not emotionally fucked up. I am a man. A non-crying, protect my family and do it with the confidence that my Black woman loves grown Man.

    • Malikka D. Caine

      The fact you equate lack of emotion with manliness is erroneous and unfortunate. There is a difference between being ruled by one’s emotions to the point of constantly making rash and damaging decisions and allowing oneself to feel in general followed by a reasonable course of action. Emotions aren’t weaknesses, they’re part of one’s humanity – something too many men are socialized to suppress at the risk of damaging pertinent relationships.

  • KBJr.

    Boy have you summoned the hoteps with this article. Dear, lord.

    You’ve got dudes implying that giving boys the agency to cry means they’ll be unable to fend off wolves or “protect” their family. They’re on here reinforcing toxic (and ludicrous) memes comparing crying (a universal and biological human emotion) with a sexual orientation (wholly unrelated). Then there’s the sloteps (the female equivalent of hoteps) who echo all of these problematic bits of patriarchal (and misogynistic) mumbo-jumbo.

    All the while – the message is fairly simple – let’s STOP indoctrinating our children to suppress perfectly normal human emotions. Crying isn’t something to be “controlled” – it’s the impetus to the crying that is something that should be recognized and understood and dealt with.

    One thing I do not agree with is that this is exclusive to “black” barbershops (though I understand it is coming from your vantage point – so I get it).

  • chelsea vader

    This isn’t a problem exclusive to black barbershops or even black people. Hyper-masculinity is a problem everywhere; for every race

    • Larii

      Okay but this specifically about black men so stop taking that away from the conversation.

      • chelsea vader

        I’m not. Being a black man I know the situations of hypermasculinity is a problem. But I think to make it seem like the black barbershop is a isolated problem is a bit irresponsible.