Gabriel San Roman
Slingshot: A-Unique Barbershop Reopens in Anaheim Amid Pandemic, Protests
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Before coronavirus hit, A-Unique Barbershop offered more than just expert fades and tapers in Anaheim. A pillar in the community since 1998, the small business became a space where black folks could be themselves, especially in a county where they're fewer and farther between. But the shop shuttered in mid-March on account of the pandemic turning life upside down for everyone, barbers included.
Pierre Dotson, A-Unique's longtime owner, waited patiently for California governor Gavin Newsom to give businesses like his the go-ahead to reopen. When that moment finally arrived, patrons excitedly returned last week as the shop served up more than a hundred haircuts.
"It was a blessing," says Dotson. "A lot of people were happy to be back."
With the pandemic still very much a reality, Dotson also took all the necessary precautions before allowing customers to take a seat in his barber's chair. "Being barbers, naturally, we're sanitation trained," he says. "What we've implemented is that we can only have the person who's getting the haircut in the shop."
But cutting down on the number of people allowed inside at a time is just one of many changes to how A-Unique does business these days. Barbers sanitize their station after every haircut, make hand sanitizer available to all customers and wear face masks.
Even with health measures in place, how the social distancing of the past few months would mesh with A-Unique's otherwise convivial vibe remained to be seen.
"I'll be honest, I was really scared that the dynamics of the barbershop would be gone," Dotson admits. "But it felt like home. The energy, stories and elements of the barbershop are still there."
Barbers and patrons have been happy to return alike, but they also had a lot on their mind as worldwide protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of police.
"It's always been the black community fighting for what's right," says Dotson. "Now, everybody of color is supporting it. There needs to be a change."
The hope for change is playing out out on the streets and in people's homes. Dotson relays that his young white customers are sharing that they're having those uncomfortable conversations about racism with their parents. OC residents are also looking for black-owned businesses to support; they need look no further than A-Unique, especially as it slowly regains its footing following unprecedented challenges.
(Quick factoid: OC's first black resident was an Anaheim barber named Drew).
Like many small businesses, the barbershop not only has to play catch up with health regulations but must also weather the financial storm of having been closed for two-and-a-half months.
A-Unique lost some of its staff barbers and the property owners are still looking to collect on rent every month.
"I'm still trying to figure things out, but the best thing is that we're open," says Dotson. "The customers are happy and a lot of kids had smiles on their faces. I'll focus on that and then on the back end, the businessman in me comes out and I've got to make things happen. We'll get through it."
For those still hesitant about haircuts, there's more than one way to support the barbershop. A-Unique maintains an online store with merchandise ranging from shirts to shaving kits. It's going to take a little bit of everything to keep the shop a cut above the rest.
"We have the community's best interest at heart," says Dotson. "I'm feeling optimistic about the future."
- Gabriel San Román
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Before the Walt Disney Company pledged to donate $5 million for social justice nonprofits this week, including the NAACP, it issued an earlier statement amid growing unrest.
"We stand against racism," it read, in part. "We stand for inclusion."
Disneyland sang the same tune, more or less, back in 1985, only on the defensive as it lost a discrimination lawsuit filed by Wheeler L. Kelly, the Mouse House's first black carpenter.
The trouble began in 1969, the same year the Haunted Mansion would debut in New Orleans Square. Kelly, 33-years-old at the time, had filed a complaint with the state against Disneyland given his experience of racism on the job. Then, one day, as he worked on repairing huts on the Jungle Cruise, a supervisor berated him. The next day Disneyland fired Kelly for insubordination, a dismissal seen as having been made in retaliation.
It wouldn't be until 1980 that Kelly filed a federal discrimination lawsuit. It alleged that, as the only black carpenter among 400 craftsmen, he would be routinely called a "nigger," "jiggaboo" and "communist" by co-workers since his hiring in 1966. In addition to the racist epithets, Kelly also claimed that supervisors encouraged him to be like "Jackie Robinson" all while denying him overtime and favorable shifts otherwise granted to white carpenters.
A district court judge in Los Angeles ruled against Disneyland, saying the Mouse House discriminated against Kelly and fired him in relation.
"A black person would have a better chance of being a federal judge or winning a gold medal ice-skating in the Olympics or being an astronaut--than being a carpenter at Disneyland," Kelly told theLos Angeles Times.
A contractor in Santa Ana at the time of his court victory, Kelly expressed a willingness to return to work at the theme park, but also felt he would face the same discrimination.
Disneyland disagreed with the assessment. "We’re very proud of our record in the equal-opportunity area," a company spokesman countered in the press.
Kelly's legal drama remains but a forgotten footnote in Disneyland's otherwise well-documented history. As the company takes a public stance against racism these days, how much has changed for black and brown workers since his firing and legal victory?
Unfortunately, an opportunity to find out was lost two years ago. Back then, the "Working for the Mouse" study that laid the groundwork for Anaheim's living wage campaign failed to look at any pay gaps between white and non-white cast members for whatever reason.
Quote Me on That!
The Luz Collective interviewed me for a piece on Latinx solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. I shared my experience reporting on the police brutality beat in Anaheim while offering some historical background from a Mexican perspective. Given our own history and experiences with law enforcement, support for Black Lives Matter should be a given!
By the Bylines
For my monthly "Off the Page" column with LibroMobile, I finally had the opportunity to write about Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, one of my favorite new authors. In the feature, the Denver-based writer looks back at her short story collection a year after it first hit book shelves and became a National Book Award finalist for fiction. Fajardo-Anstine also speaks on how writing Colorado Chicanas back in the narrative subverts popular notions of the American West. The piece ends with some teasers aboutWoman of Light, her forthcoming historical novel.