• Expert By Experience

Beards: Applause for You, Stigmatisation for Me - 2020 Reflections

It’s been almost a decade since the male-beard came into fashion. In 2014, aged 22 I wrote a piece entitled ‘ Beards: Applause for You, Stigmatisation for Me’. In this piece, I explored based on my own experiences how white men were applauded for their beards, while men of colour were stigmatised. Given that it’s been 7 years since the publication of this viral piece I felt that it would be important to see how far society has progressed (if at all) when it comes to how bearded men of colour are perceived.

A simple Google search shows that beards are still very much in fashion, from endless Instagram accounts dedicated to showcasing bearded men to articles like this which explore the question on everyone’s mind that is ‘ Do Women Prefer Men With Beards?’. The topic of beards has become so popular since 2014 that even scientists have chipped in.

In terms of attitudes towards beards, a YouGov research from 2017 found that from August 2011 to November 2016 men having some form of facial hair increased from 37% to 42%. Equally, the same research also found that women, especially young women tend to prefer bearded men. All in all, a quick glance through research and mainstream culture shows a very positive view of beards. Reflecting on the current landscape in comparison to 2014 it seems that not much has changed since the publication of the original piece. In the original piece, I found through research that ‘women now tend to prefer bearded men. The study also found women perceive full-bearded men as ‘better and more protective fathers’.

As a bearded man surely I should be celebrating all this? Given that the universe gave me hair in abundance as a South Asian man? Sadly, this isn’t the case and it will never be the case because I am not a white man. In the space of 7 years, while I have personally felt some ‘progress’ in how my beard is perceived, it still remains the case that outright celebration exists solely for straight, white men. Something which is very apparent on the endless beard appreciation pages on Instagram.

Although I am able to reap some of the benefits from the ‘beard revolution’ my experiences ultimately are quite different. The reason my experiences are quite different is because I am a bearded man of Pakistani heritage from a Muslim background who exist in a period of state-sanctioned fascism. Fascism that is normalised at every level of society. The punchline from the original piece that ‘white men are applauded for their beards, while men of colour are stigmatised’, still remains true after 7 years. Bearded men of colour are stigmatised because our beards are seen as representations of ‘otherness’. It’s this hate of ‘otherness’ which has led to hate crimes in the UK to double since 2013. The hate of ‘otherness’ has not only increased on a street level but also on a state level as they have both become interlaced. Examples of this state-sanctioned violence against ‘otherness’ include ‘go-home vans’ to dangerous rhetoric being used by government officials like Priti Patel.

The target of this ever-changing ‘other’ has expanded since 2014 and it is now inclusive of Eastern European migrants (especially after Brexit), However, the target still remains very much fixated on those who are visibly ‘Muslim’ looking people and Black communities. All of which is fed into by heightened Islamophobia and anti-Black racism. As a brown man with a beard from a visibly Muslim background and an Eastern heritage - I feel the effects of this ‘othering’ quite frequently. This othering of ‘Muslim’ appearing people is personified by this ‘opinion’ piece by Spy novelist Alan Judd in The Telegraph in 2013 on ‘How to spot a terrorist living in your neighbourhood‘.

A beard donned by a man of colour is so severely stigmatised that this author decided to do some informal research by getting 11 men to grow beards. In his research, he found that eight of the Arabic participants ‘all reported being stopped for “random” bag searches at the airport every time they travelled’ - unlike the white participants. All participants, however, reported being subject to ‘soft’ racism with comments like ‘What are you blowing up today?’ or ‘ISIS has stopped recruiting’. This ‘soft’ racism shows that beards donned by men of colour are still very much synonymous with ‘terrorist’. After all these years having a beard still seems to be a graduation certificate for men of colour onto the list of bad guys to look out for at an airport, school and the train station.

Bearded men of colour have become so synonymous with the caricature of an ever-present threat that communities such as the Sikh Community have suffered immensely, due to the heightened paranoia. The impact on bearded Sikh men is personified by this story from 2019 when a Sikh man was brutally assaulted by a white man and had his beard pulled during the attack. Equally, it’s also worth remembering that the first person to be killed due to hate-crime post 9/11 was a Sikh man. Sadly, it feels like not much has changed since 2014, let alone 2001.

Superficially, it might seem that some progress has been made as I feel quite confident that scenes like this from Harold and Kumar wouldn’t fly in 2020.

However, based on my experiences and dialogue with other men of colour I feel as though structurally things have stayed the same. It still remains the issue that when men of colour grow a beard (even a stubble can land you in trouble) that we are placed on a conveyor belt that starts at ‘officer he looks suspicious’ to the extreme end where we’ll get ‘randomly searched’ and interrogated. All of which stands in stark contrast to white men who will be celebrated regardless of how they wear their beard.

Typically when a person reflects after a long period there are some meaningful takeaways due to progress being made. Sadly, in my view, this still isn’t the case when it comes to the perception of bearded men of colour. In my view, I feel that due to rising Islamophobia and fascism, things have gotten worse for anyone deemed ‘other’ and the beard remains a central feature by which men of colour/Black men are singled out.

Given that things haven’t progressed much, I felt it would be only be right to let my 22-year-old self summarise how I feel on the subject 7 years later -

‘Society, you don’t need to directly raise concerns about my beard on an individual level because you loathe the racist caricature of the terrorist with a beard. You remind me of the burden I bear. The attitudes that have lurked within you for quite some time approach the surface and express themselves when you see my beard. It is the extended glare on the tube or the cut of an eye to a gentle smile.

I do not have all the answers; I’m a twenty-two-year-old student who finds himself denounced, guilty due to society’s Islamophobia (fostered proudly by the media). It is because the world is unable to question and counteract such attitudes that I am in this position of guilt, without trial or logic.

A part of my physical appearance does not belong to me; it is a walking shadow of the conflict between East and West. Surely, if the ultimate aim of the caricature ‘terrorist’ is to create an ignorant society, where basic issues of racism are not addressed, terror has conquered us all?’