Wearing a Beard? Watch Out! You May Be Profiled

News Abroad
tags: terrorism, hairlessness

Historian Rebecca Herzig is the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Bates College and author of the new book, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal (NYU Press, 2015).  Her previous work includes Suffering for Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America (Rutgers, 2005) and The Nature of Difference: Sciences of Race from Jefferson to Genomics (MIT, 2009). 

 George Catlin’s 1832 portrait of Náh-se-ús-kuk, eldest son of Black Hawk.  (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The “bearded terrorist” has been a recurrent figure in Anglophone popular culture since the mid-twentieth century:  in the U.S., the phrase came into circulation in the 1950s, during the Cuban revolution led by the charismatic (and famously bearded) Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.  But references to “bearded terrorists” acquired new life in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and more recently, the anti-Muslim backlash that followed the Woolwich attack in the U.K. in 2013

Heavy beards, particularly on young men of color, became symbolically linked to violent extremism.  Countless recent blogs and tweets record young men’s confrontations with the “bearded terrorist” stereotype—incidents ranging from verbal abuse and visual shaming to physical assault.  A British actor, who grew out his beard to play Socrates, recounts fellow passengers on public buses glancing at his “Muslim-looking appearance” and pronouncing him a terrorist.  Another writer, the UK-born folk singer Raj Bains, pondered whether to remove his beard before trying to pass through airport security, lest he be detained and physically searched.

Posters in south-central Guangxi depict two heavily bearded, armed men—presumably ethnic Uighur Muslims—attacking a solitary police officer, warning readers that “Terrorism is the enemy of all mankind.” Some satirists expertly lampoon the conflation of brown skin, thick beards, and political terror:  the 2008 film Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay features a scene in which Kumar, played by the Indian-American actor Kal Penn, becomes the victim of racial profiling by an elderly white woman.  Imagining the clean-shaven Penn with a long beard, the woman brings security officers running down the aisles of their airplane with her shrieks of “Terrorist!” Elsewhere, one might now purchase a pre-fabricated t-shirt with the slogan, “I AM NOT A TERRORIST (I’m just bearded).” As Raj Bains put it, “When you're a young brown man … the most trivial thing, such as whether or not you should shave your beard off or not, can become a perversely serious decision.”

The serious, and seriously troubling, symbolism of the “terrorist beard” is particularly striking when considering just how recently smooth male faces were the sign of racial unassimilability and potential violence.  From the earliest decades of European colonization of the Americas through the 1850s, beardlessness was considered by most European and European-American observers to be the true mark of difference:  the most distinctive characteristic of those geographically and linguistically dissimilar peoples generally lumped together as “Indians.”  Although even some of the most eminent European naturalists, like the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, remained uncertain as to whether the Indians “naturally [have] no beard and no hair on the rest of their bodies” or “whether they pluck them carefully out,” the observers were sure that beardlessness demonstrated radical otherness.  “They have no beard,” wrote the Scottish scholar William Robertson in a widely circulated 1777 book, “and every part of their body is perfectly smooth,” a “feebleness of constitution” mirrored in the Indian’s aversion to “labour.”  As Robertson put it, Indians alone among all races were “destitute of [this] sign of manhood.”  The English naturalist James Cowles Prichard similarly declared the “deficiency” of hair “ascribed to all the American nations” to be one of the most “well-known differences between races.” 

Such musings on Indian beardlessness—echoed by writers as diverse as Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, George Catlin, Samuel Stanhope Smith, and Johann Blumenbach—were hardly trivial.  For European and European-American observers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at stake in ongoing debates over Indian beardlessness was a crucial question:  whether Indians might, as the Pennsylvania-born naturalist William Bartram put it, be persuaded to “adopt the European modes of civil society,” or whether they were inherently “incapable of civilization” on whites’ terms.  The French naturalist Comte de Buffon held to the latter position:  “the peculiar environment of the New World” had “stunted” the Indians, Buffon argued, precluding their “admi[ssion] to membership in the new republic.”  So, too, Linnaeus asserted four separate and unequal “varieties” of Homo sapiens, distinguished not only by hair color, type, and amount (“black, straight, thick” or “yellow, brown, flowing”) but also by each group’s alleged capacities for reason (“regulated by customs” or “governed by caprice”).  The lush European beard not only signaled white manliness but also the inextricably related sense of political virtue.  Beardlessness, in turn, was seen as a form of “feebleness” that indicated unfitness for “civilized” modes of life.

By the mid-twentieth century, however, dominant symbolic norms had been inverted:  no longer did the lush male beard evoke the refined intelligence of the (white) philosopher, but instead the menacing volatility of the political extremist:  first “Communist revolutionaries,” later “Muslim extremists.”  Other types of visible hairiness—such as facial hair or hairy legs on women, thick chest or back hair on men—took on troubling new connotations, signaling not only political extremism but also mental pathology, criminal deviance, sexual depravity.  What had changed?  How were ideas about hairiness and hairlessness so completely turned upside down?

Certainly the dissemination of Darwinian ideas played an important role, as the theories of natural and sexual selection led to fresh popular interest in potential evolutionary “atavisms.”  Changing patterns and policies of immigration, the rise of consumer culture, the growth of mass media, and the advent of new technologies of body modification (cheap, disposable safety razors, especially) were equally influential, as I explain in more detail in Plucked.  But it is also fair to say that while the symbolic resonance of the thick male beard shifted over time, the underlying racial hierarchies and exclusions persisted more in less intact.  Today, despite a number of high-profile attacks on U.S. targets launched by clean-shaven white men (e.g., Timothy McVeigh, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev), and an increasing number of suicide bombings in other locations launched by women, the dominant figure of the “terrorist” in American popular culture remains the young man of color, interpreted as capricious, violent, and incapable of civilization.  Plus ça change…

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