It's a trope, the bemusement of a white person wondering why someone with quarter-inch hair would get his or her hair cut, yet again, when it doesn't seem to "need" it. It's a throwaway joke in Dear White People, for example, when a white girlfriend confusedly asks "why do you need to get your hair cut again? You just cut it last week." And the man just laughs and says "it's a black thing." White men especially have a tendency to get it cut only when it touches the ears, or collar, or gets simply unmanageable, or someone around him goes "you need a haircut". The days of a man visiting a barber every two weeks to maintain his short back and sides died out as a habit in the early 1960s, as soon as a certain long-haired Brit group hit the Ed Sullivan Show.

So I'm standing in a downtown barber college, where most of the clientele, and most of the student body is black. That's part of why I came there, and part of my self-sought challenge is to immerse myself in the culture. I do live in the South, where there's a significant number of people of color, and I'd like to give them the same professional level of service as well as knowledge of how you ask for a haircut and the expectations thereof.

I've seen many, many haircuts since, and it's been a real revelation.

The magic of that haircut isn't in the evening out of the hair, though there've been some radical transformations from a half-inch all over to a quarter-inch bald fade at the temples and nape. It's in a service that many ask for that pretty much preclude cutting much of the hair at all. It's a process called "lining". 

Whether with a small lining clipper, or with a straight razor (shavette), or both, the barber basically forms a hard edge to the hair, shaping it at the nape, at the temples, across the forehead, and around the ears. If it's done with a razor blade, the line really, really "pops", and quite a few men spring for that extra attention. It's such a subtle thing, but it somehow really makes a difference to the man's appearance. Regardless of the length, or fade of the rest of the hair, it makes him look polished in the way that subtly ironing a shirt or shining a pair of shoes that still had a lot of shine in them does.

The instructions about it can be quite detailed, would sir like points at the temples, or rounded? Natural hairline, or bring it back to make a straight line across the forehead? Sideburn length? Sideburn width?

It takes a bit of time to do, and it can be quite intimate, in a way, carefully running a razor blade in small chirping scrapes on the forehead, the conversation idling by around the client and with the client, any of a number of songs playing on any of a number of phones, and the general hustle and bustle of the shop.

It's why our school, and others, are so valued. For a short expenditure of money, a small service, a huge difference.

It made me look at myself a bit differently on the way out. I stopped by the cosmetology department and paid to have a manicure.

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