Is beard discrimination even a thing?

A young co-worker of mine shared a story with me that I would like to share with all of you. At the end of his experience, I’d like to point out what I learned from it in the hopes that as we celebrate our independence we can open our eyes to more forms of acceptance.

My co-worker was participating in a No-Shaving Charity Event. He had to let his beard grow, without interference, for an entire year. He only survived the challenge for 8 months. I noticed that his time wasn’t up and asked, “Hey, what happened to your beard?” He said, “I couldn’t take it anymore, I had to shave it off.” I asked, “Why?” He said, “I couldn’t keep it shaped up or anything so it was looking pretty gnarly. You won’t believe it but I was totally getting discriminated against because of it!”

(Oh, did I mention… my young co-worker is Caucasian, average build and attractive in a commercial sort of way. The beard was giving him all sorts of Bounty -Paper- Towel- Lumberjack realness, which is the only reason that I noticed it was gone.)

“Discriminated against? Really?” I said. (I didn’t mean to sound flippant but I am not Caucasian, not under 40, not male, not Christian, not totally heterosexual, not cool, not thin, not married and I do not have 20/20 vision so discrimination is not new to me….)

“Yeah, it was awful,” He told me with the utmost sincerity. “As soon as I shaved it, people were being nice to me again in stores. Before, people were avoiding eye contact with me, wouldn’t talk to me when I had the beard, it was the worst. Literally as soon as I shaved it off, customer service went through the roof! People around town just kept commenting that I looked very bummy with the beard and suspicious and untrustworthy. Sucked. I am sure that I will grow another one at some point, but not for a contest where I can’t keep it maintained. I know that it’s their problem, not mine but, having people discriminate against you, is pretty rough.”

If my eyes had rolled any harder, they would have rolled right out of my head, onto the carpet, into the warehouse and down a storm drain, never to be rolled again.

I was tempted, at first, to “go off” with a level of fury typically reserved for belligerent racists but I took a deep breath first. We work together so, there was nothing positive going to come from any stereotypical finger snapping and neck-rolling. I actually felt sorry for him to be honest. Even though he didn’t consider at all that he was telling his discrimination story to a person who’d had a glass bottle thrown from a 10th floor dorm window at them for being “black on campus” in the early 90’s. He had no idea that he was telling this beard discrimination story to someone who in 1995 was in a bar that was circled by Klu Klux Klan members, on horses, just 3 hours north of where we were having this conversation, who yelled for the bar owners to “Send the nigger out.”

Yeah, 1995.
Anyway, he was really hurt by not being treated fairly or served due to his appearance so instead of sticking it out for charity to help others financially, it simply wasn’t worth it to be a bearded guy anymore in his small community. That subtle barely noticeable difference between him and everyone else in the town had drawn so much hate to him that this normally confident guy was second guessing his value and worth for 8 whole months in a row. Sadly, I understood all too well and for much, much longer.

His beard story showed me that:

1) You can think that you are hiding your preferences from people that you are discriminating against but trust me they can FEEL it. It might be worth it to explore why you don’t like them so much and what about yourself is being reflected back. Changing you is the only real change that you’re in control of. Something inside us, when we are genuinely accepting of ourselves, should acknowledge upon interacting with others, a thought like, “this person is also a human, LIKE ME”. We don’t have to agree with one another and that’s the beauty of living in my country. You don’t have to like bearded men or black women if you don’t want to, technically, although both are outstanding.

2) There are probably way more people than we know who are lying, hiding, suffering and pretending in their lives every single day just to not be excluded. I wonder how long it takes before they decide to end their lives, rather than be faced with the constant pang of relentless judgement? Disagreement leads to problem solving but what does discrimination on any level lead to? We are all imperfect and we’ve all been known to make bad decisions. There’s no question. But if we can’t tolerate trivial differences, how will we make strides to agreeing on principal issues that affect the health and welfare of us all?

3) Some people don’t have the opportunity or privilege to change what it is about them that makes you uncomfortable so who’s problem/fault is that, really? No one should have to sit down and explain to you why they are different from you, especially due to physical appearances. No matter what successes we have as a union, it seems that my fellow countrymen are constantly looking for new and unique ways to divide ‘We the People’ into factions hellbent on proving patriotism through hatred. It’s as frightening as it ever was but even more than that, quite childish. Thanks to the overabundance of platforms by which we can nitpick at one another and become tribal separatists spouting off “My First Fascist” kit quotes, it’s easy to forget that the experiment of America is based on the freedom to be different without government interference. But if you don’t learn that at home and you mistreat others, nobody benefits and we continue to suffer over nothing …and you might get knocked the fuck out to boot…

4) Being able to handle obstacles makes you a stronger person than the weakened, insecure, petty attackers that you will face in life. In our country, that means that more than likely the women, the elderly, the differently-abled, the immigrants, the poor and the ethnic minority and LGBTQ populations are probably the strongest people in our land and without being able to change one thing about why you hate them, they still show up every single day to their jobs, take care of their homes/families and are just as proud to be American as the rest. The strong survive.

Not one living human being is superior in any way shape or form to any other living human being, so hopefully while my country honors our freedom this week, acceptance will come back into vogue soon (if it ever was). And we shouldn’t have to be completely skinned or de-bearded to prove it. The problems we have we can solve, but only together. Out of many, one, right?

And my fifth and final lesson learned from listening to my co-worker complain about his bout with discrimination:

5) We should treat each other like we treat our eagles, guns and flags. With respect.

Featured image by Marcos Guevara — Flickr.