Image from Rooted Facebook Page
CEO of Rooted Barber + Shop & En Root Mobile Barbershop
Highlights: During our conversation over the phone, we discuss the historic role of the Black barbershop, expressing culture and identity through his business, Black style in pop culture, and his experiences living in Oklahoma City.
July 14, 2020
Anna: Can you tell me about yourself and your relationship to Oklahoma City?
Bruce: I'm from Texas. I moved here, I think, in 2001. I've been in the city since 2006. As far as being a business owner, I have two businesses. I have En Root Mobile Barbershop Company, which is the first mobile barbershop in the state of Oklahoma. I had to lobby to get the laws changed. There's a governing body called The Oklahoma State Cosmetology and Barber Board. So, I had to go through that governing body to get those changes made. My second company is Rooted Barber + Shop. I own those two barbershops. I also sit on that board now. I was the Barber representative on that board; now I sit as the vice chair of that board. As far as my relationship with the city, I do a lot of activism, so I work with the homeless population through a partnership with the Homeless Alliance. I actually built a second brick-and-mortar inside of the Homeless Alliance day shelter. That's a lot of my focus, helping that population through barber services. I have a boys group home that I also provide services to. That's my relationship to the city.
I believe if you don't have the means to give money, and you have a skill, then I think you should give your skillset away. At the end of the day, time is money, so it's kinda the same to me. It's the core of what I do. I love to give back and I find it easy to give back in that manner.
Anna: Can you tell me more about your Artist in Residence program?
Bruce: It's not a true artist-in-residency. We call it an artist-in-residency program and what we do is we provide a space. We try to do it twice a year. We select an artist, we try to make sure it's an artist of color and give them a whole space to do an exhibit for six months. And we have a lot of friends who are in the art world and we heard their struggles of getting their work in spaces. When I first got into a brick-and-mortar, and just the wall space, I was like man, I think I can do something different with this. Typically, barbershops have a sports theme or something like that, so we just wanted to do something different and actually be intentional about our space and how we use it. It's a win win for us because every six months we get new art decor and it gives artists an opportunity to be seen. We typically invest in the artist in the form of two events. We throw an artist talk and an exit event. Artists get 100% of the proceeds from sales. That was just another program we created to try and give back in a different way.
Anna: What is unique about Oklahoma City to you?
Bruce: It's growing and I like that. I think that we have a lot of young professionals that are moving to the city. It's a great place to live, I believe in my heart that it is. I think we have our problems like any city does, but I think growth is always good. It's an opportunity to succeed.
Anna: I spoke with another business owner, Krystle Robinson-Hershey, owner of Sage & Elm Apothecary. When she was describing the local Black business community, she mentioned it emphasizing mentorship and close connections, sharing resources. Would you say that speaks to the culture of the larger Black community in OKC?
Bruce: It's hard to say. I think that entrepreneurs have a hard time giving back because they're trying to build a business, you know. It's difficult already, especially, I think, for your Black entrepreneurs, to be able to have access to avenues that would be able to help them in their business. And giving back sometimes is on the back burner. As far as working with one another, in the barbering community, it's not very often. There's a lot of competition, but I don't think it should be. I think it should be more collaboration. But it's not. I care about my industry; I'm sitting on my local state board. Also sit on a national board. I've seen the bigger picture and gone to different states and met with different barbers that are on the same level as I am as far as being on the state board. I think we should do more collaborating. And you see it happen. You see people who are trying to do those things. People that are creating organizations to try to pool the Black dollar together if you will. But it's still a process, you know. It's still a growing process, I believe.
Anna: What does it mean to you to be an inclusive shop and community space?
Bruce: One of the things that that really means to me—because our motto here is "Cuts and Culture"—So, with Rooted Barber + Shop, I think it's very important to be inclusive but not water down what we're about. To be professional, but to keep the culture. And I think, when I say that, I guess what I'm hoping for is that not only will I have barbers of different ethnicities here, but also the clientele base. I want to be able to get the clientele base to come in, be comfortable, and get to know us personally and the culture of what it means to be Black and to have this barbershop. You know, the Black barbershop, for decades has been the cornerstone of the Black community. It was a safe space—still is a safe space—that you could talk about politics or religion or what's going on in the community. It's wonderful to get people who otherwise would not be able to have access to Black folks or the community. To be able to come in and have a safe space and be able to be involved in that way. To be able to hear the things we're talking about and express their own opinions on it. That's what it means to be inclusive. You have a lot of White men and women who either had a bad experience going into a Black barbershop or just simply afraid because of what they see or what they heard or experienced. Professionalism to me is number one, but, just because I want to be professional doesn't mean that I have to lose my culture. Everything from the type of music that we listen to, to what's on the TV. I love when February comes around and I can do Black history month all month. I'm plannin all kinda music and Black cinema. It's just to give them an experience to understand that we're all the same but the cultures are different. So, come and enjoy this culture. Come learn about this culture. So, it was very important for me to have culture be a part of what we do here.
Anna: Do you feel like you have been able to meet those goals of having different groups come in and feel comfortable and enjoy the culture and everything like that?
Bruce: I think I have. I have women barbers, Hispanic barbers, and we have all kinds of people coming into this shop. All walks of life. You know, single mothers bringing their children. It has to be a safe place for single mothers. We have single White mothers bringing their half-Black babies here. It's a safe place, it's a professional place. But you're still going to be able to receive the culture in a positive aspect. Culture can be anything, you know. Just because it's culture doesn't mean it has to be positive, you know. You can go to a barbershop, and they could be doing things completely different than we are. It's all part of the culture. I want to be specific that this is a positive environment that we want to share with people.
Anna: You mention that some White people don't have experience being around Black culture or in a Black barbershop. Do you think this speaks to the level of segregation still occurring in the city? That there is so much separation.
Bruce: So, I'll tell you, I don't believe that necessarily in the city, but in the industry, it's definitely segregated. And what I mean by that is that typically people go get a haircut from someone who looks like them. That kinda keeps it segregated. What I've seen happen in the last 10 years or so, 15 years, particularly what your Black barber are skilled at and services that we're providing, everybody kinda wants that. We're kinda hot right now as far as the styles that we're doing. The fades, the type of haircuts, you know, that we're providing. So, I think we're starting to see a shift. It's a good time to be, and to really push inclusiveness, because people want what we're providing. Now it's just a matter of are you being professional? Is it a safe place? If you would have asked me that question 15 years ago, when the styles were different or no one was really paying attention to what the Black barbers were doing, it wouldn't be like that right now. I get so many phone calls to come teach classes at these White establishment schools because they don't know how to do what we do. They're still trying to figure out how to do what we've been doing. The industry has really been segregated for a long time. I don't think it has necessarily to do with the city as much as it does the industry itself.
Anna: Do you feel like you see a shift in people's attitudes in understanding what's going on in the Black community, or do you think it's more of an interest in the culture of the Black community? I've seen a lot of people challenge the idea of loving and enjoying aspects of Black culture (like styles, music, and fashion), but not caring about the community.
Bruce: It's cultural appropriation. That's what you see. It's hard for Black folks to sit back and see that because there's such deep issues goin on in the Black community. And then, just add the aspect of, you know, if we're talking about barbering, right now people are interested in what we're doing because everybody wants to do what we're doin. But guess what, years ago none of your multimillion-dollar White establishments cared about the black community—specifically the barbershops! Oh well, they doin what they doin over there? Well we gonna let them do what they're doin, we're doin what we're doin over here. But they had the opportunity to establish themselves on a larger scale and they have the finances to do things like that. And now that they see, ok man, this thing has taken a shift, it's the same thing. It sucks to see someone else take a dance move, if you will, and make millions of dollars from it and they took it right off the streets of the Black community. That's like appropriation. You talk about the money factor, but then you just talk about the support factor. Even if it's not financial. It's ok to look this, dress like this, talk like this, but you know, I don't want to march. I don't want to support. I tell you, in the midst of George Floyd and seeing the protests going on around the country, around the world, it's just been amazing to see that shift happen. To see so many White supporters out there. That made me feel really good. You didn't see that with Rodney King. You didn't see that with Sandra Bland. You didn't see that with a lot of these other lives that we're taken by police. And so, I think it's a little different with the culture. I think it's just a little different. But I think you do have more Whites that understand it's a deeper meaning in the aspect of "how do I support what I'm trying to imitate" if you will.
Anna: What do you think has changed?
Bruce: I think it's social media. I think it's cameras. Getting out the camera phone and actually getting the footage. I don't know why George Floyd was that person. I don't know why he's the one because there's been so many deaths by the hand of police, so, I think that's what it is. It's live videos, it's technology that's allowing for the world to see what's happening instantly.
Anna: Do you think that connects to the idea that cultural erasure can cause people who live in separate cultural bubbles to not see the other things happening in different communities? But, now with social media, that bubble is more easily infiltrated? Without it, people may not see things that those in power keep from their view, and the media is often silent about what is happening in the Black community.
Bruce: Oh yah. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but absolutely. One of the oddest things I've witnessed with media is when you had natural disasters. Katrina for example. And you saw Black people trying to survive and gettin' things out of the store that didn't belong to them—They we're looters. But you saw the pictures, the same scenario of Whites that were taking things to try and survive, food and those type of things. They were surviving. The media tends to always paint a picture of Black being this evil negative group of people. When you can see that direct comparison, you know, when you can see it blatant, and they still choose to wordplay with it, it makes it difficult. And I put the blame on us too. A lot of times White folks don't want to come into a Black establishment. I blame us somewhat because we have to be more professional, but in the same sense, I think media plays a big part in why White folks don't want to come and try to support Black businesses. The picture has already been painted and the culture has been tainted, but it's not all their fault. We have to take some responsibility and be, just better, all around. That's what I kinda strive for. I had to grow into this person. With my professionalism, in my industry as a barber. Even at 30, I didn't treat it with the respect that I treat it with now. I think young men need an opportunity to grow. It's a shame when you see a White kid and a Black kid go through the same judge for the same crime. The White kid gets 6 months probation and the Black kid goes to prison for two years. You know. It's a shame because our children don't get an opportunity to be kids sometimes because we're being judged more harshly by our society. Really by White America. I try to remember that and I try to let my son be a kid, and I try to remember when I was a kid. But at the same time, I have to talk to my son and his friends when they go out. I have to have those talks—the police talk. You know. A lot of White parents will never know what that's like. They'll never have to experience that. They don't have to have the White police talk with their kids. It's that tightrope walk of not watering yourself down, but at the same time, understanding your reality in this country.
Anna: What does it mean to water down yourself?
Bruce: I'll give you an example. So, my family is from Belize. I remember visiting. Belize is like two parts. You have, like, an island, and you have the mainland. A lot of your tourists really go to the island. We're on this island, and we're going around, and we go to this one establishment and it's like a bar restaurant establishment. And we walk in there and they're playin' country music. And there ain't nothin' but White folks around. I was upset to feel like Belizean people have to water down who they are for the tourist attractions, to be able to bring that money in through tourism. And I get that. But at the same time, I'm lookin' at tourists like, "do you really want to leave wherever you comin' from to a whole 'nother country, to listen to country music? Like this is not the music we listen to here. This is not our culture. It's kinda like that. I wouldn't want to go to France to eat at McDonalds. I want to go to get the culture.
Anna: Why do those seemingly small things matter so much, such as the music choice in a restaurant? Can you speak more to the value of those kind of things?
Bruce: It's almost like you're sellin' out to who you really are. To what you really believe in. For the dollar bill. I don't put money at the forefront of what I do, and it makes it easy to make these conscious decisions and be loyal to myself and be loyal to my staff. To put this business first, you know. And that's the difference. That establishment in Belize. They weren't loyal to who they are; they were loyal to the dollar. And it's as simple as that. I don't worry about that. It allows me to be true to who I am and to the culture.
Anna: Do you think people fail to see that the Black community, because of segregation and isolation, has created its own unique, rich culture. Could that contribute to why they don't respect certain aspects of the culture?
Bruce: Absolutely. I would agree with that. One of the most fascinating things that I learned about Oklahoma is that it has, in the past, has had the most townships started by Black people. That's a lot of great history. You talk about Tulsa riots and Black Wallstreet up there. I just think you gotta get out of your bubble. I think we should encourage inclusiveness and maybe that's our fault, in the Black community, to not encourage that. You have some Black businesses that don't want the White dollar. If you will. To me, it's not about the money. I would rather educate you. I'd rather show you that all Black folks aren't what you see on TV. You know. Or on the news every night. I think it's both people. The business owner or the community have to be able to open their doors. America has painted the picture that Black folks are negative people, evil people, bad people. You know, you better clutch your purse. That's every race. I get nervous when I see a group of White men. I don't think many people can admit that, but I get nervous. Especially with the president that we have now [Donald Trump] and just so much animosity in the air. I get nervous.
Anna: You mention that your main goal is to educate people. Do you find it tiring to have to educate people often?
Bruce: Oh, never. I love to debate; I love to argue. I probably do it too much, but I think that's part of the barbershop culture. But no, I love it. I love to receive it.
Anna: Are there any experiences you can share about Black business owners working in Deep Deuce?
Bruce: I have a friend who owned a restaurant there. Her name is Chaya Fletcher. And I believe it was the only Black business in the community at the time. They end up, you know, gentrification, I think the owner sold it and the new owner raised the rent to a point that she couldn't pay and she had to go. It was called Urban Roots, you know. You have to surround yourself with people who want you there, and that can be difficult sometimes. Especially when you're dealing with a community that doesn't have love for what you represent, that's gonna be difficult.
Anna: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Bruce: I think if everyone had an open mind, you know, when it comes to each other, and different cultures, everything would be alright. Just try to be positive, that's it really. Be safe out here, bye.