I grew up in a small Texas city, where my white peers called me a monkey. They told me that Indians grow our body hair earlier because we are closer to animals. I grew my first mustache at 11; I did not smile in photographs for years after. My desire to shave was not about wanting to become a man. It was about wanting to become white.
Now, at age 22, I sit in my Brooklyn apartment reading a New York Post story about how men in this city are paying up to $8,500 to obtain facial hair transplants to make their beards appear thicker. The article doesn’t mention race. But the first image that comes to mind is the white boys who taunted me growing up. Then, my dad told me, “One day they are going to be jealous of you.” I refused to believe him until now.
My generation inherited both our beards and our brownness in a post-9/11 era. We experienced a silent war — one that did not make it on the news — in the classrooms, the subways, the airports where we found ourselves under a new type of scrutiny. The brown on our skin: a new flavor of lethal. Its beard, even more of a threat. This is a story for all of the brown boys who shaved, who plucked, who went under laser and knife to emerge American.
Every brown boy has a story about the hair. I promise. When he trusts you, ask him about his first shave.
My father finally let me shave after eighth grade. I remember the date he gave me his old electric razor — the kind that could still cut you — vividly. July 4. Independence Day. The day I bled for my country. The day I looked at my face in the mirror and finally became an American.
Now white boys in Brooklyn are sewing hair onto their faces in the same city where brown boys still have scars from ripping it off. I want to talk about what it means for these boys to be adorned with words like “beautiful” when their brown counterparts are shackled onto other words like “terrorism.” What it says about whiteness. About me and all of the other brown boys fumbling into ourselves in a world where our bodies are policed to the point of being alien to ourselves.
When I read about white men getting beard transplants, part of me appreciates how explicit this transaction is. I understand it the same way I am slowly understanding how my brown body becomes cool here. How such sites of fear and trauma — skin, a beard — become “cool” when associated with the white kind of body. “Cool” is a word that I am still struggling to fit inside of, like a hand-me-down shirt that will never quite fit. In Brooklyn, white people think I can do no wrong: If I dress down, they call me “normcore”; if I dress up, they tell me I’m intimidating; if I dress in Indian clothing, they tell me that I am trendy. I am used to the eyes, the nod, the jolt — the constant feeling of white people scrutinizing me. But here it feels different. No longer am I the brown boy they want to bash, I am the brown boy they want to befriend.
Or sleep with. White gay men send me messages telling me that they have always “wanted to be with a real man.” And when I decide to heed their advances, it inevitably comes up. They tell me how exotic my hairy body is. How masculine. How rugged. These words scatter on my body like the hair on my chest, blessings — or curses — I never asked for.
In Brooklyn, all of the parts of myself that I grew up ashamed of — my skin, its hair; my culture, its history; my religion, its gods — have now suddenly become hip. When I do not shave for the week, white men tell me how jealous they are of my beard — how they wish theirs could grow as thick. When I wear my mustache just like all the Indian uncles I grew up around, they tell me how they’ve always wanted to grow a goatee but it just doesn’t seem connect like mine. Their dismay is an opportunity to touch my face.
But what they quite can’t wrap their mustache curls around is the fact that the moment I walk out of their bar, the world — and its police — see me otherwise. That not all of us have the privilege to embrace difference for the sake of transgression. That some of us have had difference stuffed in our throats and inscribed on our skin.
People want the rugged authenticity of being different without actually being punished for it — and I understand why they do it. I recognize the insecurity. Just a decade ago, my peers were flinging words like “terrorist” and “faggot” to me in the halls of our high school. Now I’m “trendy” and “fierce.” Either assessment rings lonely and desperate. How they are tremendously afraid of being insignificant. How the fantasy of race that they have projected on my body makes me have some mystic power they are jealous of. They are afraid of boring. They are afraid of being nothing. They are in a constant state of falling — grasping for all of the bindis, beards, dashikis, gauges that they hold on to to feel relevant. And what hurts the most is that when they do it, it magically becomes beautiful. It becomes a beard worth $8,500 and not a beard worth five bullets. When the white body wears our scars, they finally become beautiful.
Every brown boy has a story about the hair. Pluck it out of him. He’s used to it.