Performing Race and Shaping Community in the Black Barbershop
Many social scientists assume the existence of a "black community," but few attempt to empirically demonstrate its existence. Moreover, few scholars explore how everyday talk and interaction in racially exclusive spaces shape blacks' worldviews and folk conceptions of race. My ethnographic research focuses on an institution that is historically recognized as significant to the "black community"–the barbershop – to examine how the people who gather there talk about what creates a sense of racial relatedness between them. I study how feelings of racial solidarity are achieved, or not, in everyday life. I also interrogate the ways in which the barbershop, as a historically salient "black institution" and racially exclusive place, plays a role in producing communal racial sentiments.
Since W. E. B. Du Bois first outlined the notion of double consciousness, race scholars have debated whether African Americans hold a distinct worldview as a result of experiencing racial stigma. Yet over the last several decades, sociologists abandoned the question of whether blacks enact unique beliefs and values; most contemporary ethnographies instead emphasize how blacks adhere to mainstream (i.e., white) values. My research brings culture back into scholarship on the so-called black community in a distinct way by showing how black men in the barbershop perceive and talk about culture and morality through a racial lens. It also demonstrates how these men use folk conceptions of race to guide interaction.
My dissertation builds upon Rogers Brubaker's research on ethnicity, challenging the presumption of a black community based simply on categorical racial membership and making the case that racial relatedness is an intermittent occurrence among black people. It shows that when racial relatedness occurs it is an interactional achievement; that is, black men actively work to create racial solidarity through signaling and affirming expectations about shared experiences, values, and worldviews. My dissertation pinpoints when and how race becomes a pertinent category in shaping people's behavior and social relations. In doing so, it moves us farther away from the notion that simply being black is a sufficient condition for racial solidarity and closer to understanding the process of how people become black or achieve blackness situationally—which I refer to as "acting black." It also contributes to efforts to bring culture back into racial theorizing without presuming the existence of a monolithic black culture or black community.