Racially harrassed for having facial hair
Rajesh Thind faced harassment after growing facial
hair to test social changes in the wake of the London
Published: 02 February 2006
At about 8.50am on the morning of Thursday 7 July 2005
I was waiting for the train to work on the southbound
platform of the Piccadilly Line at Holborn underground
station. That train never arrived. Twenty-six of its
passengers didn't survive the journey.
That weekend I felt at first hand the impact of a
close brush with terrorism; I was shaken, life felt
precious. I stayed home for a few days, cooked for my
girlfriend, didn't bother shaving. By the time I
re-emerged the world around me had undergone a
Kafkaesque transformation. With guns everywhere,
stubbly-me with my rucksack and newspaper was getting
a lot of attention.
People discreetly distanced themselves from me. Some
stared, first at me, then at my rucksack, then back at
me. The only minor consolation was that I'd never had
so much space to myself on the Underground.
I wanted to tell people it was okay, that I was a
little afraid too, but that we mustn't give in to that
fear. But you can't really just go up to people and
say that. Not during the rush hour anyway. A few days
later, I was on a bus in East London when a
middle-aged Rastafarian man got on, and to my
surprise, sat next to me.
"So how's it feel brethren?" he asked me. "Erm, how's
what feel?" I replied. "How's it feel now it's your
turn to be bottom of the pile?" We had a good chat,
the Rasta and I. We talked about riots and muggers and
what it was like for him growing up a black man in
Brixton in the early 1980s.
Then we talked about bombs and beards and what it was
going to be like for "a brother of my persuasion" (he
just assumed I'm Muslim; I'm not) from now on. Talking
to him thawed the chill in the air, helped me get some
perspective. I felt better. "Take it easy brother," he
said as he stepped off the moving bus. He left me with
an idea for a film that would involve growing my first
I wanted to understand whether Britain is undergoing a
permanent social transformation in the wake of the
July suicide attacks. I realised that being a brown
bloke with a beard was an excellent, if itchy means,
to find out what life was like in Britain after the
To test the waters, I went for a tourist stroll around
London with my rucksack on. I was strolling down the
road near Downing Street when two policemen came up
and asked what I was up to. I asked one of them
whether I would look any less dodgy if I wasn't
wearing a baseball cap and he said: "No, you'd still
look dodgy." I asked if I would look less dodgy if I
was wearing a suit and he said: "You'd look like a
dodgy guy in a suit."
It might not be right that people are influenced by
stereotypes, but in a world where news daily
reinforces the idea of Public Enemy No.1 being a brown
guy with a beard in a cave somewhere, it's hard not to
be. People have a right to be afraid, and tolerance
takes courage. But what cost our paranoia? And who
picks up the tab?
The questions became even more urgent on 22 July, the
day after a round of attempted attacks. At Stockwell
Underground station armed police, on the hunt for a
Muslim North-African man, had shot dead a Catholic
Brazilian electrician on his way to work. The police
said they couldn't promise it wouldn't happen again.
Part of me felt surrounded; terrorists on one side,
jumpy policemen with guns on the other.
I'd heard about this man who had made see-through
rucksacks called "Freedom bags" so I stood outside
Stockwell station with 30 bags in rush hour and
offered free rucksacks to people. All but three of the
bags were taken by non-whites - Latin Americans,
blacks and Asians.
I became suspicious that "shoot-to-kill" was a
misconceived response to the threat of suicide
bombers. I wanted to take this to the top. Sir Ian
Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police had
just been quoted calling for a public debate on
I called his office to see if he would have a public
debate with me.
"Travels with my what?," they said.
Having been turned down by the press office, I
wondered whether Sir Ian wasn't the sort of belts and
braces, down-to-earth sort of Cambridge graduate who
would appreciate the direct approach.
I tracked him down to the Dimbleby Lecture in
Shoreditch, conveniently close to my house, and
pounced when he arrived for rehearsals in the
afternoon. "Sir Ian!" "Yes?"
Sir Ian was very pleasant, heartily agreeing to meet
with me for a public debate on policing after the
bombs and asking me to sort it out with his press
officer. A couple of days later, brimming with
questions and limbering up for my debate with the
Commissioner, I called her.
It seemed the Commissioner wouldn't be able to meet
with me after all. Having failed to confront Sir Ian,
I travelled to Beirut to visit Sheikh Omar Bakri
Mohammed, nicknamed the Tottenham Ayatollah.
I wanted to see whether the Government's decision to
ban him from this country was effective. I took with
me a mannequin to play a game called "Spot the
terrorist". I dressed the mannequin in a Hawaiian
shirt and baseball cap.
I hoped to catch him off guard by asking him if it
looked like a terrorist. "No, it looks like a
homosexual," was his response.
Over the course of the four months that we were making
Travels with My Beard, the more time that elapsed
since the bombs, the less paranoia there was on the
streets. But the longer my beard grew the more I felt
At a time when many of the second and third
generations of Asian immigrants to this country are
exploring their cultural and religious roots with a
new- found confidence and curiosity, and a healthy
lack of shame, being made to feel under suspicion is a
dangerous, illiberal path that requires all of us to
pay attention, even the beardless.
Mischief - Travels With My Beard, BBC3, Thursday 2
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