Can you have brown skin and a beard?
Beards mean different things to different people, but even in the cultural melting pot of London, beards on brown skin have a very specific meaning.
For most of my life, fashion trends have passed me by. My look has never really been of-the-moment and that’s never bothered me. When beards became fashionable, all of a sudden a trend appeared that I fully bought into. I grew a mighty beard.
I loved my beard and treated it well; I had it regularly trimmed and shaped and moisturised it every day (yes, really). I was really into it. Others, sadly, were not.
First came the jokes from friends and acquaintances, “Don’t expect to get on a plane any time soon.” Or, “You look like the Taleban.” And even, “You look like a terrorist.” These comments were a little hurtful but, ultimately, I chalked them down to ‘banter’ from friends. To be fair, when I told people the jokes were a little too much, they apologised and stopped. I’m lucky, I have brilliant friends.
Then came more subtle reactions. On public transport people stared at me much more. As anyone knows, staring at anything other than your phone, the Metro or into the distance is pretty unusual on the Tube. Worse still, almost all the time, the seat next to me became the last to be taken. In shops, assistants who were chatty to the customers before and after me weren’t chatty with me. At parties and drinks, people I was introduced to were less friendly at first. Less friendly until they saw me drink or had a chat with me.
All of this adds up to very little. However, anyone who has grown up in a place where they’re in the minority will know that most prejudice isn’t overt. It’s simple things and low-level barriers. Barriers that are easy to overcome, but the onus is on you, the other, to overcome them.
Growing up in London, and being part of a minority ethnic group, I’ve spent my whole life overcoming these minor things. Proving to people that I’m ‘alright’, that I’m ‘one of them’. Growing a beard made the barriers a little higher, the isolation a little greater, the hurt a little more bruising.
So I had it shaved off.
Now, I’m lucky, I didn’t grow my beard for religious reasons. It was vanity. Shaving it off wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. And now I’m back where I was. The barriers are a little lower again, but they’re still there.
I’m not a Muslim, but I’ve had a small insight into the challenges Muslims face. We ask them to integrate and be part of British society but we eye them with suspicion until they prove it explicitly. We do it to all minorities but for Muslims we’ve moved the bar up. It’s hard having brown skin and a beard in the UK, but the real problem is this: it’s becoming harder to be Muslim.