Vermont barber denies racism

Says he is unable to cut blacks’ hair

By John Curran
Associated Press / November 10, 2010

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BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — Barber Mike Aldrich says he was trying to avoid embarrassment and giving a bad haircut when he balked at trimming the hair of Dr. Darryl Fisher. Aldrich says he is just no good at cutting the hair of black people.

Fisher, who is black, says there was something race-related about the way Aldrich, who is white, turned him away when he ducked into Mike’s Barber Shop asking for a trim one day last month.

What happened next triggered hard feelings on both sides, a demonstration by local residents unhappy with the barber and a new example of an old problem: white barbers and hairdressers struggling to cope with black customers’ hair, which generally is thicker and curlier than that of white people.

“It’s a major, major problem,’’ said Willie Morrow, an author of books about barbering black people’s hair.

On Oct. 5, Fisher, a physician from Taos, N.M., was visiting Bellows Falls, a village of about 3,500 residents along the Connecticut River, and walked into Aldrich’s storefront barber shop.

Aldrich was playing cards with a friend, and Fisher asked if the barber was in. Aldrich said no, and Fisher went on his way. Later, walking past, Fisher saw through the front window that the man who had told him the barber was out was cutting the hair of a white customer.

Fisher, 57, did not go in. When he returned home, he sent a letter to the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer newspaper, recounting what had happened and saying he would not want to work or live in Bellows Falls if that is the way businesses treat people.

“The way he looked at me — and this is just my opinion — and the way he just said no when I asked if the barber was there and wouldn’t tell me when the barber was coming in and then 15 minutes later he’s cutting somebody else’s hair,’’ Fisher said Monday in a telephone interview. “Through my experience with racism, I thought it was racially motivated.’’

Aldrich, who has a one-man shop and sometimes plays host to impromptu cribbage games between regulars at a table near the front window, has been cutting hair for 40 years.

Interim town manager Francis Walsh described Aldrich as “the kind of guy if you went in there and you asked for a haircut and he was playing cards, he’d tell you to leave.’’

Aldrich says that he gets only about one black customer a year at his shop in Bellows Falls, which lies on the Vermont-New Hampshire border and is 97 percent white. He tells them up front that he struggles with cutting their hair.

“I’m sorry,’’ he said he tells them. “You can sit in the chair if you want, but I’ve tried cutting it, and I have problems.’’

He said that it was wrong to lie to Fisher, but that he did it because he did not want to cut his hair.

As unhappy as Fisher was with the treatment, he was impressed when he heard about Saturday’s demonstration, in which about two dozen people staged a sidewalk protest, with at least one carrying a sign that said, “Hate has no home here.’’

“One jerk is not going to ruin everything,’’ Fisher said. “The number of people who have protested him, that’s a very good sign. I’m impressed. It’s made me feel super welcome. I’ll be back in Bellows Falls in December and won’t be so nervous walking up and down the street.’’