The International Beard of Suspicion
Having previously lived in San Francisco and now currently residing in Brooklyn, to me, having a beard was pretty commonplace. When I decided to take that leap a few years ago and actually grow the sucker out, I realized two things; 1. I had a glorious full beard, and 2. A lot of people had issues with my beard. I never realized how many people had an opinion about my facial hair until they blatantly started expressing their love or hatred for it. I never cared much what people thought about it because I loved the way it looked and it was working for me. Now it does so happen that I appear at first glance to be racially ambiguous, so it was only a matter of time before the politically incorrect “terrorist” card was unleashed. I always took it as a compliment when people would play the guessing game as to my race. To me, there was nothing wrong with being thought to appear as Middle Eastern. When I began traveling extensively for my work, my world was opened up to something I would have never imagined, and all because of my beard.
I never had many issues flying domestic, besides the strange looks from fellow travelers. It doesn’t help that I usually travel in comfortable attire, and by comfortable, I mean sweatpants or shorts or a ball cap. I’m also partially covered in tattoos, which I don’t make an effort to cover up because, what would be the point in that? The occasional whispers and quick glances down from strangers, especially in connecting cities like Dallas or Charlotte didn’t bother me. Fortunately, I have the luxury of traveling often, and that provides me with some added perks of expedited screening, pre-boarding and frequent upgrades, which is why the TSA never gives me any trouble. But I always do take great pleasure when I’m waiting to board an aircraft and I notice people silently judging me. Pleasure because when they announce pre-boarding for business or first class passengers, I am usually the first one up and on the plane, leaving the judgment police in my dust, knowing that I will then get to smile at them as they walk past me to their regular seats…in the back.
When I get to leave the country that’s usually when my beard becomes more of a spectacle rather than a safety concern. Oddly enough, I found that in predominantly Arab countries, my beard was something that was not normal, I mean, unless you are a fundamentalist…that clearly I am not, unless you consider me a fundamentalist traveler. And in the Caribbean, everyone thinks it’s ok to touch your beard, because they just don’t see beards as often.
Part of having a big beard is being conscious of the fact that it will attract attention, good and bad. It wasn’t until a recent incident while arriving back in the country that I realized my beard was going to cause me a whole lot of trouble…with US Immigration. On a recent arrival to JFK airport from Madrid, I was pretty exhausted from the transatlantic flight, and was ready to get home so I could unpack, do laundry, and pack again for a flight I had early the next morning to Barbados. (I did mention I travel a lot, right?)
I remember it clear as day because I am still a bit traumatized by what happened when I approached the immigration officer. “Hey, what’s up with that beard?” he initially said to me when I reached the counter. Of course, I was a bit taken back and in any other circumstance, I probably would have laughed it off and hit him hard with an epic comeback, but there was something about the tone of his voice and the look of fear in his eye. Yup, the dude was clearly scared of me and my beard, and there wasn’t much I could do about it except reply with, “What does my beard have anything to do with me entering the country?” Of course there was nothing wrong with my reply, but to a person in a position of authority, my reply was more like a challenge, one he quickly accepted when he persisted with his irrelevant and judgmental questioning. This was clearly racial profiling. It was at that moment that all those silly “terrorist” jokes and comments by my friends and family had come to bite me in the ass and declare them the victors in the fight against my beard.
The immigration officer didn’t let me off the hook so easily after our question and answer session. Instead he marked up my entry form with a red pen, taking me back to my grammar school days when I bombed (bad choice of word…or brilliant?) a test and my teacher so graciously let me know by over marking my test with red ink. I was being disciplined from behind the desk, and there was nothing I could do about it. When I reached the customs officer after retrieving my luggage, he saw my form and asked, “What did you do?” Apparently I was in hot water, and was supposed to report to interrogation, but after expressing my frustration over my unnecessary beard questioning, the officer did something unimaginable; he let me go.
So, it was a horrible experience and one that I quickly posted to social media, you know, to alert my friends and loved ones of my recent violation. I got some sympathy from it, but a lot of, “I told you so” as well. I was so heated that I actually went online and filed a formal complaint against the officer and the beard atrocity that took place. It wasn’t until the next week when I was returning home from another international flight that I realized that complaint had most likely gotten me into further trouble. Guess who was automatically flagged in the system for extra interrogation? I never thought a beard could truly cause such drama at the airport. I think about all the dudes out there who actually are Middle Eastern or who also have “suspicious” beards, and it must also suck for them when traveling.
So what’s the takeaway here? Should those of us with epic beards conform and shave, or at least trim to what society feels is an appropriate length, just to avoid troubles at the airport? Nope. Just plan some extra time when traveling internationally to deal with the inadequate immigration officers who might single you out in fear of your beard. Fear the beard, I say…fear the beard.
About The Author
David Duran is a Brooklyn based freelance journalist who mainly focuses on luxury travel, culinary, hospitality and the occasional beard rant. You can find his work in publications such as The Huffington Post, Fodor’s, OutTraveler, HomeAway, and loads more.