February 4, 2014

The Atlantic: Beards are racist

From The Atlantic:
The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard 
“Washes and razors for foofoos," scoffed Walt Whitman. But the story of 19th-century facial hair is more tangled than modern nostalgists may realize.  
SEAN TRAINOR

Let me declare what many already know: 2013 was a landmark year for men’s facial hair. From flamboyant beards to the proliferation of “old-fashioned” shops, evidence of the trend abounds, embracing groups as diverse as the Boston Red Sox, the men of Movember, and the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty. In dens of hipsterdom, one can hardly throw a PBR without hitting a waxed moustache. ... 
But one characteristic distinguishes this revival from previous ones: Today’s facial-hair enthusiasts share an affection for the ornate practices of the 1800s—the exuberant beards and ostentatious moustaches, as well as the elegance and “manliness” of the shops where those styles were cultivated.
What follows is the lost story of American facial hair. Like countless other histories, it is rife with contradictions. It begins with white Americans at the time of the Revolution who derided barbering as the work of “inferiors.” It continues with black entrepreneurs who turned it into a source of wealth and prestige. And it concludes with the advent of the beard—a fashion born out of desperation but transformed into a symbol of masculine authority and white supremacy.

Then there's a whole bunch of stuff about black barbershops (it doesn't seem to occur to the author that lots of white people lived in areas without many black barbers) and how Indians can't grow beards (according to stereotype, of course). I can't quite follow the theory, but then there's:
"(Incidentally, Victorian Englishmen were going through a beard revival of their own at that time, though for different reasons.)"

Rather than promoting two complicated theories of how Americans and Brits came up with the same look at about the same time for separate reasons involving African-Americans and American Indians in America but presumably not in England, isn't it more plausible that provincial Americans like Abraham Lincoln were mostly following fashions being set in Dickens' London, the richest, most progressive, most dominant city in the world around 1860?

In general today, youngish white people are getting more into their ancestors' material culture: "The Dream of the 1890s Is Alive in Portland" and all that. 

Of course, much of what's attractive about styles from before the Great War, the Depression, and WWII is the self-confident sense of superiority (after 1945, you can sense the feeling that Western man just didn't deserve nice things). Which will be justification for countless more Atlantic articles worrying over: Are handlebar mustaches racist or not? (Answer: Yes.)
  

53 comments:

Anonymous said...

Betty White was Liberace's beard. Ergo, Betty White is racist ...

(I mean with a name like ...)

Discard said...

I have a beard and I am a racist. Something wrong with that?

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons why beards boomed during the Civil War is because the men didn't have time to shave when they had to rise at 4 am, or the energy to do it after a 20-mile march.

As for the officers, they were trying to look older and more authoritative to their men. If you're a clean-shaven officer and all the men you're commanding have beards, you're the one who looks like a baby-faced wimp out of your depth.

Beards kept on after the Civil War for awhile because nobody really liked to shave that much.

Larry, San Francisco said...

What is funny, is that this idea was already parodied in Neal Stephenson's Cryptomnicon from 1999 when the hero's (Randy's) girlfriend writes an essay that makes her famous about how beards are white heterosexist (he of course has a beard). Here is the section:

"She pulled down statistics on racial variation in beard growth. American Indians didn't
grow beards, Asians hardly did, Africans were a special case because daily shaving gave
them a painful skin condition. "The ability to grow heavy, full beards as a matter of
choice appears to be a privilege accorded by nature solely to white males," she wrote.
Alarm bells, red lights, and screaming klaxons went off in Randy's mind when he
happened across that phrase."But this assertion buys into a specious subsumption. 'Nature' is a socially constructed
discourse, not an objective reality [many footnotes here]. That is doubly true in the case
of the 'nature' that accords full beards to the specific minority population of northern
European males. Homo sapiens evolved in climatic zones where facial hair was of little
practical use. The development of an offshoot of the species characterized by densely
bearded males is an adaptive response to cold climates. These climates did not 'naturally'
invade the habitats of early humans--rather, the humans invaded geographical regions
where such climates prevailed. This geographical transgression was strictly a
sociocultural event and so all physical adaptations to it must be placed in the same
category--including the development of dense facial hair."

Peter the Shark said...

It is true that a lot of what is considered "progressive" or "SWPL" or "hipster" culture is very Eurocentric. A lot of "Alternative" rock music is basically rock music with most of the black influence stripped out of it. White people can generally grow better beards than people of other races. Tattoos look better on white skin. Soccer is a sport not yet dominated by black players. Etc. I suspect that the current hysteria about racism is caused by the cognitive dissonance of so many hipsters realizing they don't actually like African-American culture very much but being afraid to admit it, even to themselves.

Anonymous said...

And it concludes with the advent of the beard—a fashion born out of desperation but transformed into a symbol of masculine authority and white supremacy.

Is there a different narrative behind beards and Islam? Islam would definitely qualify as a center of masculine authority, but I don't think the white supremacy thingy would apply.

cyril said...

OT:

http://www.salon.com/2014/02/04/in_praise_of_arthur_chu_the_game_theory_nerd_who_broke_jeopardy/

Latest episode in the long-running series, "Asian cunning vs. White sportsmanship"

Anonymous said...

I didn't think a guy with a beard and tattoos could look like a sissy, but then I saw the guy on the left.

agnostic said...

The re-growth of facial hair is part of the rise of status-striving and inequality, over at least two full cycles going back to the early 1800s:

http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2013/08/facial-hair-as-elite-status-contest.html

Jimmy Stewart didn't need steroids, and he didn't need a beard either.

Looking over those pictures with more perspective now, you can see facial hair already starting to unwind during the Progressive Era, when ostentatious Victorian / Gilded Age beards had already been trimmed down to mustaches. By the Jazz Age, they were clean-shaven.

Status striving declines before inequality does, which was only during the '20s. Reining in anti-social competition began a bit earlier, around 1905 to 1915.

Anonymous said...

What an odd story and odd theory.

'Beards are racist'. Good 'ol Colonel Sanders is perhaps the ultimate icon of black America, along with Martin Luther King, of course. Col. Sanders, as we know, is or was distinguished by his neat welll trimmed southern gentleman goatee and moustache.
I would go as far as to say that the image of Col. Sanders is venerated by the typical black American household as much as 'Christ of the Sacred Heart' is venerated by old time Irish families.
How possibly could Col. Sanders, of his wonderful beard, be racist?

5371 said...

The Crimean war had a lot to do with the revival of the beard.

Anonymous said...

if white persons do a thing more often than non-white persons do a thing, noticing is good and the thing must be an example of sublimated racism.

if non-white persons do a thing more/less often than white persons do a thing, noticing is racist and that thing is either good or, if obviously not good, caused by racism.

the rules are simple.

from those rules follows another, which can be seen in the crafty conflation of criticism of the 1% and anti-semitism:

if a group is disproportionately comprised of non-whites, noticing is racist, not liking the group is racist, and criticizing it means you're probably a Nazi.

Anonymous said...

Cough cough...Portland!...cough...Seattle....cough....Vermont!

Rifleman said...

...(after 1945, you can sense the feeling that Western man just didn't deserve nice things).

Really? I found this photo from the mid 1960s.

Didn't the Western world's and especially America's age of consumerism and material entitlement start AFTER the end of WWII?

guest007 said...

The article at Slate on busing/desegregation was much better than the Atlantic article on beards.

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/history/features/2014/the_liberal_failure_on_race/how_the_left_s_embrace_of_busing_hurt_the_cause_of_integration.html

Why not write about a topic that actually affects most Americans and that shows liberals/progressives/Democrats at their worst.

Dan said...

George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman "Flashman At The Charge" speculates that when men grow whiskers there is a war fever afoot. Whiskers are the white man's war paint.

It's as good a theory as anyone else's.

Frank Montgomery said...

The only reason I don't have a beard is because I look like that "internet butthurt basement dweller" meme with one, or so I think. If I lose some more weight and get contacts, I'd def have one, but maybe I've just been reading too much of the rooshvforum.

Hunsdon said...

Dan referenced George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman.

Hunsdon: Any excuse to read MacDonald Fraser is a good one. Weren't skulls popular in clothing at about the same time? Or accessories? Victorian metal!

Anonymous said...

Larry, Charlotte in Cryptonomicon was the first thing I thought of when I saw this article!

Gene Berman said...

Larry, San Francisco:

You may be right about the origin of dense facial hair. But you might also reflect on a very apparent contraindication: the extremely dense beards consisting of tightly-coiled individual hairs assocciated with pictures of various ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia (whose specific names escape my memory at the moment but whose personal names tended toward Nebachudnezzar, etc.).

My own beard is exactly of that sort (and bright red, though my head hair was brown with merely a reddish tinge). I only grew it once--in my early 20s--over a month-long hospital stay.

Anonymous said...

Steve Sailer:"Rather than promoting two complicated theories of how Americans and Brits came up with the same look at about the same time for separate reasons involving African-Americans and American Indians in America but presumably not in England, isn't it more plausible that provincial Americans like Abraham Lincoln were mostly following fashions being set in Dickens' London, the richest, most progressive, most dominant city in the world around 1860?"

Yeah, the article fails to really explore the fact that beards in the 19th century were a pan-Western phenomenon: France, the German states, Britain, the USA, etc. For that matter, it extended beyond the West, as evidenced by Russia. Tolstoy has a section in CHILDHOOD, BOYHOOD, YOUTH, where he talks about the beard fad. This article is definitely Americanocentric, and in a bad way.

syon

Anonymous said...

OT:

http://www.salon.com/2014/02/04/in_praise_of_arthur_chu_the_game_theory_nerd_who_broke_jeopardy/

Latest episode in the long-running series, "Asian cunning vs. White sportsmanship"


But if the Asian guy played the usual way, and a White guy played the different way, then it would be an example of Asian conformity and White creativity.

Anonymous said...

"George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman 'Flashman At The Charge' speculates that when men grow whiskers there is a war fever afoot. Whiskers are the white man's war paint."

Picking sides for World War T? Could be complicated....

ysv_rao said...

Its actually amazing how quickly trends and people accept it in such sheeplike manner

I think it was in Bill Bryson's book where he noted an incident from 1850 where a man was nearly lynched for having a beard in upstate New York.
This was a mere 10 years before the famously bearded Lincoln!

Speaking of hair this time down below.Not to be risqué, but Im old enough to remember how it was considered odd for women go the Brazillian route but nowadays she is considered quite a freak if she sports the full merkin.

ysv_rao said...


Latest episode in the long-running series, "Asian cunning vs. White sportsmanship"

Commodore Matthew Perry may have an opinion on that formulation

ysv_rao said...

Tattoos look better on white skin."

It really looks best on Semitic, Japanese and Maori peoples

heartiste said...

Beards and male pattern baldness are both still enduring mysterious of evolution, no?

jody said...

the beard fad is stupid, but it's not racist.

guys, they look terrible. shave them.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget bald heads.

Skinheads.

jody said...

i recall steve posting 1 or 2 years ago about 'styles stagnating' or something about how you can't tell one decade apart from another anymore by how people look in photos and videos. clothes and styles not changing much anymore.

well, they still are. less than before, but they still are. like the faux hawk, and the big frame glasses with no lenses that hipsters wear today, the stupid big beard will date photos back to the early teens. it will be gone by 2020, and you'll look back on photos of people with a faux hawk, big stupid glasses, and a 'keep calm' shirt, and be like "Oh man I remember 2013."

keep calm and post on.

you most definitely have not been pwned. nobody says pwned anymore.

Mark Plus said...

Notice the sideburns and mustaches on male characters in the Steampunk genre as well, in a kind of alternative Victorian-age reality where white men still have authority and they don't doubt their value and competence to use it. And the female characters may assert their equality with men as a theoretical proposition they learned from books and lectures, but they still have traditional upbringings which inhibit them from acting upon this toxic ideology to erode their character. Steampunk seems to show a way of having a technologically advancing society without the other kind of "progress," so called, which have led to the decline of the West.

Laguna Beach Fogey said...

Good coverage, Steve.

My beard and I have learned to take this sort of anti-beard nonsense in stride.

I'm wondering, are they positioning beards as the White man's equivalent of the yellow star?

"Kick the nasty bearded man into the dirt..."

BB753 said...

Do goatees get a pass? Or is it just as racist if not more?

Volksverhetzer said...

I think the beard thing is just white people becoming whiter.

Whites are also becoming paler, and white people also go more for a hairstyle the ethnics can't have.

You should also see the same thing with culture, where whites increasingly will turn towards Northern Europe, rather than the Roman, Greek or ethnic stuff, that where so popular while the competitors where other N-Europeans.

As Christianity is changing to accommodate ethnics, atheistic Heathendom is returning. That is, they will celebrate Yule, because the sun is turning, and know something about Wotan, Thor, Frey and Freya.

Who knows, perhaps the first generation of whites is growing up, that will know what Wyrd is?

Anonymous said...

Isn't Colonel Sanders supposed to look like a slave owner. Why would this corporate image appeal to them? Maybe blacks are subconsciously yearning for the good 'ol days when somebody took good care of them.

call now said...

In San Francisco I'm not seeing too many beards anymore. I guess a lot of men? these days feel it might overwhelm their frail fizique.

Reg Cæsar said...

Are beards racist? Eva Braun probably was. Michelle Obama certainly is.

Reg Cæsar said...

YSV Rao: … an incident from 1850 where a man was nearly lynched for having a beard in upstate New York.
This was a mere 10 years before the famously bearded Lincoln!


Lincoln owed his beard to upstate New York. A little girl saw him stump in Westfield, on Lake Erie, and wrote to tell him he would look better with hair on his face. Also, he had a high-pitched voice, and a beard would balance that somewhat.

Westfield's other claims to notoriety are
Welch's, which got rich off temperance, and a combined motel and drive-in theater.

GH said...

cyril-

Odd that there are so many articles about Arthur Chu's playing style. Andrew Moore did the same thing just last summer, and had picked up more money than four-time (so far) champion Chu when he had the same number of wins.

Republican Revivalist said...

I can't be the only one eerily reminded of the beard takedown written by Daniel Waterhouse's ex girlfriend in Cryptonomicon?

Svigor said...

I have a beard and I am a racist. Something wrong with that?

Ditto. But my beard isn't racist. In fact, I think it might be racist to blame my beard for anything I've done.

Okay, so, if YT grows a beard, he's flaunting his unique racial traits, and das raciss. And in another thread, we learn that YT who grows a beard is trying to look like homos, who own YT's beard.

Okay, I suppose there might be a pattern forming...

But if the Asian guy played the usual way, and a White guy played the different way, then it would be an example of Asian conformity and White creativity.

Exactly. Cheating = creativity! I suggest you run with this: Asians' propensity for cheating smashes the stereotype that they aren't creative. Go forth and shout it from the mountaintops, my friend.

RonMexico said...

ysv_rao said
"Speaking of hair this time down below.Not to be risqué, but Im old enough to remember how it was considered odd for women go the Brazillian route but nowadays she is considered quite a freak if she sports the full merkin."

Yeah, unfortunately, IMO, that "we've got bush!" era went out with the 80s. Centerfolds of the 70-80s looked like women, and now, girls, with their manicured pooties. The Atlantic should explore that.

Matt Buckalew said...

Is it Mark Steyn that makes the joke about how Thatcher had a homosexual cabinet member dying of AIDS in her cabinet which was fine by her, but was adamant in not allowing into cabinet anyone with a beard?

Anonymous said...

MMMMM,somehow I'm not surprised that the article did not explore the role of beards among Hasidic Jews....

The Anti-Gnostic said...

Are beards racist? Eva Braun probably was

This gets trotted out every now and then. I think it's far more probable that Hitler was a megalomaniac who found sex degrading and a distraction from his loftier goal of conquering Europe. If my job was conquering Europe and running the German empire, I probably wouldn't bother with sex either.

Hunsdon said...

Republican Revivalist said: I can't be the only one eerily reminded of the beard takedown written by Daniel Waterhouse's ex girlfriend in Cryptonomicon?

Hunsdon said: Not even the only one who's commented on it.

Reg Cæsar said...

Anti-Gnostic: [Eva Braun] gets trotted out every now and then… If my job was conquering Europe and running the German empire, I probably wouldn't bother with sex either.

That puts him at odds with other conquerors, and in the company of the saintly celibate Henry the Navigator.

That last-minute wedding to Eva is mighty suspicious. I don't think it was meant to qualify them for burial in a Catholic cemetery. (Not the way those two ended.)

A German historian put it best: "Something was wrong in his pants." We don't know what kind of perv Adolf was, but it's pretty likely he was some kind. And a beard is a beard, whatever she's used to hide.

Anonymous said...

RR, you're the third poster to comment on Cryptonomicon, but the first to mistake the boyfriend as Daniel. Daniel Waterhouse was the character in the Baroque Cycle. It was Randy.

pat said...

I wrote a blog comment a week ago in which I referred to someone as having a full beard like the 'Smith Brothers' (of cough drop fame). Then I realized no one would get that reference. I switched to a 'Duck Dynasty' reference.

When I was a kid every man was clean shaven. I saw the Sean Connery movie 'Outland' about a future in which men wore short beards. It was hard for me then to accept. Connery looked all wrong. I watched it again on cable a few weeks ago and the facial hair now seems perfectly OK. It's shocking to realize how much we are a slave to fashion. But the bogus astronomy in that film still bothers me.

I grew a goatee about five years ago. It was my way of defying gravity. As you get older your face seems to slide off your facial bones. Women just have to endure the sagging or get surgery, but men can misdirect the eye with a cultivated patch of hair.

Hooray for our side.

I asked the EBMUD (water department) guy yesterday about how much water I should store for the coming earthquake. He said only a gallon a day - so I'm OK. But that will be just for drinking and cooking, not shaving. I figure I will use my beard trimmer to shave. It's important for older guys to keep their beard well trimmed lest they look like a homeless bum.

The lithium ion battery in my trimmer lasts more than a year between charges so I should be well groomed until the water and power are restored. One more 'prepper' chore solved.

Albertosaurus

Harry Baldwin said...

Yeah, unfortunately, IMO, that "we've got bush!" era went out with the 80s. Centerfolds of the 70-80s looked like women, and now, girls, with their manicured pooties.

Possibly already passe? See this this and this.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. Cheating = creativity! I suggest you run with this: Asians' propensity for cheating smashes the stereotype that they aren't creative. Go forth and shout it from the mountaintops, my friend.

He's not cheating though.

My point is that it's easy to see how if the Asian guy played the usual way, and a White guy played the different way, then it could be taken as an example of Asian conformity and White creativity.

I don't see why it wouldn't in that case, since the Asian guy would be playing the same way it's always been played, while the White guy would be playing a novel way that isn't cheating.

Anonymous said...

But if the Asian guy played the usual way, and a White guy played the different way, then it would be an example of Asian conformity and White creativity.

No.

Google plus "How to win at Jeopardy" then doing that on screen because winning is the most important thing, would never be portrayed as creativity.

Perhaps it might get portrayed White "dominance and will to win" versus Asian "submissiveness and mediocrity" but not fucking creativity. Because what he did was not creative.

Anonymous said...

I always knew Marx and Castro were racist.

Nazis were clean-shaven, so maybe they were not.