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The real reason the barbershop scene in ‘Harlem’ is so controversial

A Black space can be both sacred and harmful

Amazon Prime’s Harlem was always going to be a conversation starter. The show about four single Black women in the titular New York neighborhood tackles gentrification, homophobia, higher education, dating and a million other topics. But I doubt even the show’s creators could have anticipated the social media firestorm one 45-second scene created.

The scene in episode three features one of the main characters, a queer masc woman named Tye, who is in a Black barbershop for a haircut. One of the barbers, a Black man, goes on an explicit rant about a sexual experience with a woman. Tye asks her barber to tell the other barber to watch his language. To which the foul-mouthed barber responds with, “Maybe the lady shouldn’t try so hard to look like a dude.”

The scene has been polarizing, to say the least. Some see it as an attack on a beloved pillar of the Black community, and others see it as a way to shed light on the homophobia and misogyny in supposed safe spaces. The answer is somewhere in the middle and requires a bit more nuance than social media debates tend to provide.

Two things can be true about that barbershop scene and what it means: The scene can be poorly written and badly executed, and it can be a valid attempt at getting to the truth that many folks have experienced in barbershops.

It’s disingenuous for men to act as though barbershops have always been the safe spaces they’ve aimed to become in recent years. If you were raised going to barbershops, then you’ve undoubtedly encountered men spouting misogyny or homophobia, sometimes in front of women and queer folks. Ask anyone who isn’t a straight male and there’s a story of — at best — discomfort in a barbershop. At worst, the toxicity in such places has been a source of trauma.

But the problem with the Harlem scene is that it doesn’t reflect the way barbershops operate in their present incarnations. Barbershops have changed in recent years, especially as they have become more lucrative. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been in a barbershop that didn’t post rules about language, hate speech and how to treat people in the shop. But even if individual barbers aren’t fully understanding of feminism and queer folks, they are ultimately driven by finances. And any barber knows not to mess up another barber’s money. The lewd barber in the scene is more likely to cut his vulgarity short to not run the risk of his partner missing out on a client. It’s an understood custom for barbers working together. Often, what looks like standing up for women is men being loyal to other men.

There’s a reason for the outrage. The lack of nuance comes off as carelessness toward a place that many find as a sacred Black space. There’s a real discussion to be had about barbershops — and operations run by cisgender heterosexual men in general — that purport to be safe spaces for everyone but ultimately fall short of those claims. What does a safe space for and by Black men look like and who does it serve? What does a space Black men love and go to for security provide to others in the community, and what does it lack? There’s a more compelling scene that could have been done in which a well-meaning man armed with his rules about equal treatment still makes that barbershop uncomfortable for a queer woman.

Maybe he quotes the misogyny of Kevin Samuels, relays some of Dave Chappelle’s comedy or tells a story that misgenders someone. Interestingly, Insecure tiptoed into this discussion a couple of weeks ago when a barbershop that puts together community events and commits to public service has an owner that spouts ableist insults at his peer.

Overall, Harlem is 10 imperfect, but entertaining and heartfelt episodes of TV that hit its stride by the second half of the season. I have some gripes with the show — some more pressing than others — but it hits more than it misses. The short, out-of-context clips that flooded timelines don’t reveal what the show gets right, like its emotionally vibrant depiction of a friends group of Black women. I can’t help but wonder if that is at least part of the reason the negative aspects of the show are garnering all of the attention. It’s like some of us are looking for reasons to discredit “yet another” show about a Black women’s friends group. The angst is a perfect storm of the way Black folks cherish barbershops and the way we also tend to hate seeing fully fleshed-out women on screen and in real life.

The Harlem barbershop scene is a miscue, but it wasn’t malicious or done as some sort of cinematic COINTELPRO to tear down a Black institution. The scene was a flawed attempt to speak up for people who have felt targeted in places many of us like to think of as unimpeachable community pillars. And anyone watching the entire show will confirm that its heart is in the right place. I’m always willing to forgive missteps that at least care about getting it right, because the course correction will be handled with intentionality and lead to a better product created out of love for those who want to see themselves on screen.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.