Where apartheid still thrives - at the hair salon

About 12 years ago I happened to be working in Kingston, Jamaica, on a television documentary. Whenever I visited the Caribbean, I would purchase the daily newspaper and turn immediately to the death announcements. So many of my student friends had returned home that I was on the lookout for their appearance - and that of their close relatives - in the column. I attended many a funeral in Trinidad as a result of my vigilance.

There had to be a first time in Jamaica. Bobby Hill's father, a well-known impresario, had kicked the bucket. I had to look my best. My hair (there was much more on the pate then) was in a mess. The young women at the hotel where I was staying pointed me to a shopping mall where I would find the hairdresser's. I sauntered in and slouched into a comfortable armchair. There was dead silence. A young local white woman burst into the lounge, hands akimbo, and announced at full volume: "We don't do crinkly hair in here." I stroked my head to remind myself that I hadn't grown lambswool in the previous 15 minutes. I stared at her, slightly perplexed. In fact I was deeply embarrassed, now categorised as some subhuman species. I returned to the hotel, got on the phone, called the daily paper, members of parliament, friends in the legal fraternity. I spoke to anyone who would listen.

Eventually it turned out that the salon was owned by the wife of a government minister. The minister of culture, if you please! And right at that time he was slap bang in the middle of leading a national celebration entitled Marcus Garvey Centenary Year. Garvey was that famous black nationalist who mobilised millions of blacks in the diaspora under the slogan "Back to Africa".

The minister and his wife visited the hotel in a flash. The apologies were delivered on bended knees. But I also detected a hint of menace in his eyes. I backed off because I had learnt that he usually travelled around with a heavily armed posse. And I got the impression that his apologies were not his last words.

That was a long time ago and 4,000 miles away. Only last week Mrs Howe was on her way home from work and thought she would patronise the latest addition to the Brixton shopping centre - a hairdresser's very recently opened. She was greeted by the manager: "We don't do your kind of hair in here."

"Black people?" she asked.

He was a bit more polite than his Kingstonian counterpart: "I'm afraid so."

Mrs Howe advised him to get in a hairdresser who could cater for black women. He would do no such thing, he said. She persisted: "Aren't you taking a risk?"

Back came the reply: "It's a risk I am willing to take."

Now, this row of shops has been refurbished recently with local and central government funds. The landlords are more than likely the council or housing association. Just around the corner there are two other black hairdressers, both of whom cater for whites as well. To add insult to injury, the shop is situated perhaps ten yards away from the spot where the Brixton riots of 198l, which enveloped every black community in this land, began. Just across the road sits a block of flats named after Lord David Pitt, a noted campaigner against racism.

This is black Brixton, hard-core Brixton. The sounds and the smells are of Jamaica and Africa. This is home, our home. To treat Mrs Howe in this way and on that street is for me a desecration of hallowed ground.

Somewhere among my readership there are Brixton councillors. Somewhere in the lease for the hairdresser's shop there must be a clause that saves our community from this outrage. Some time recently, just after the nail bomb exploded, a band of councillors and other dignitaries stood on the steps of the town hall and made a public pledge against racism. They had better sort this one out. If they don't, we the citizens will. Be sure of that.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Gordon Brown, the great feminist