How a trip to the barbers fuelled new research at DMU

Dr Karis Campion's radical new research at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) started with a trip to the barbers!

"I used to have really long hair. In fact, when I was growing up, you name a hairstyle and I'd donned it - from cornrows to an afro", she explains.


"At the end of my PhD I decided I was going to get my hair cut short and so my fascination with Black barber shop culture began. I felt like I had entered into this secret world that I had never had access to before."

The Black Barber Shop is a social institution in most major cities in the UK. They are community hubs, where different generations of Black men, and increasingly women, meet to put the world to rights.

How these institutions shape and sustain Black communities form the crux of Karis's research, as one of three new Legacy In Action Research Fellows at DMU's Stephen Lawrence Research Centre.

Karis said: "I am exploring the social significance of black barber shops in South London 

"One of the things I am fascinated about is their function as therapeutic spaces for Black communities. These barber shops are unofficial community spaces and protected locations for Black men.


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"Many men will visit the barber shop weekly and these trips are important. They provide an opportunity to talk between themselves about issues they might not necessarily discuss about elsewhere.

"They are spaces where stories are exchanged and creativity reigns. You have the entrepreneurs, the unemployed, the lonely, the young and the elderly - they are a place for respite, a place to connect.

"This space is very important and by visiting these shops, over the coming year, and talking to the people who frequent them, I hope to show how communities develop around the shops and shape Black identities and experiences. This research will hopefully shine a light on the love, intimacy and connections that occur outside the gaze of a majority white culture.

"We see how Black men do not always have the best time when it comes to how they are represented in the mainstream

"If we can open a window to these spaces where people can relax and be themselves, talk about politics, have debates about the state of society, discuss health concerns and bring generations together, all free from an oppressive gaze, there is so much to learn about the layers of identity."

So how was Karis's experience of the barbers?

 "The conversations being had in the space I had encountered before but not as an insider. At the same time, I was also aware that, as a woman, I changed the space. Lots of things were toned down for my benefit, especially when I first started going.

"There has been a lot of urban change and gentrification of the areas I'm focusing on. What that brings with it - rising rents, diminished social housing etc - means communities are slowly being pushed out. I want to capture why the Barber Shop is so important and has potential to act as a protected racialised space and buffer against these changing local contexts, to keep a community together.

"The topic can be seen as quite niche in the UK and has not yet received the attention it deserves.

Karis is looking forward to working with the team at the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre.

"It's a real honour to work in a centre dedicated to research around race and ethnicity in the context of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry - an inquiry that was so pivotal to the development of new race equality laws and the way we talked about racism. Our work at the Centre will honour the legacy of this watershed moment.

 "I feel lucky to be doing this work with colleagues that I know will uplift each other, be critical friends, and support each other's research

"These research opportunities and communities are like gold dust in the current HE climate. We want to grow a new generation of academics at the centre and have the opportunity to train people up so this work can continue for years to come."

Posted on Tuesday 27th October 2020

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