As a Jewish kid in Israel I was obsessed with the Holocaust. From a very early age, I wanted to learn more about the atrocity — the magnitude of which I couldn’t fathom. It scared me. I couldn’t let go of the thought that I could have been in the Holocaust. And although death and being separated from my family terrified me, I was just as afraid of the humiliation that was inflicting people who were just like me and my family.
So when I saw the video of a black teenage wrestler being forced to cut off his dreadlocks to compete, my mind immediately went to an image from the Holocaust that has stuck with me over the years — Nazi soldiers cutting the beards of Jewish men in the street.
Last week, wrestling referee Alan Maloney told Andrew Johnson, a 16-year-old black wrestler for the Buena Regional High School Chiefs in Atlantic County, that he couldn’t compete because of his dreadlocks. Maloney, who referred to the dreadlocks as “braids,” rejected Johnson’s hair covering because “it wasn’t in its natural state,” according to the Johnson family lawyer. Johnson had two options: cut the dreadlocks or forfeit. He had 90 seconds to decide what to do because Maloney came late and missed the weigh-in when referees usually make sure that all athletes meet regulation and resolve any issues that arise. Under pressure and not wanting to disappoint his teammates, Johnson stood as an athletic trainer quickly cut his hair. Johnson went on the mat and knocked out his opponent, contributing to his high school’s win.
A video of Johnson getting his dreadlocks cut went viral and invoked outrage.
The incident says so much about American racism — Johnson’s situation exemplifies a process that makes up rules that require people of color to go the extra mile. And it is hard to think of a rule more humiliating than forcing a kid to destroy something that is part of his identity, and something so deeply linked to blackness. Maloney’s choice of words that Johnson’s hair is “not in its natural state” makes it even worse.
Is it really surprising that Maloney used racial slurs in the past toward a black referee?
I think back to my elementary and middle-school classes about the Holocaust in Tel Aviv. We were taught that years before the extermination of Jews, Nazi soldiers in Germany and then Poland would harass Jewish people. One way to humiliate Jewish men was to stop them on the street and cut off their beards. The beard is important in Judaism both according to the laws of the Torah but also according to Jewish tradition and spirituality.
Beards are so meaningful in Judaism that a couple of years ago, an ultra-orthodox rabbi in Israel compared the requirement of the Israeli Defense Forces that non-religious soldiers keep a clean shave to the Nazis shaving Jewish men in the Holocaust and called on soldiers to refuse shaving “even if he will receive one hundred lashes and go to prison” (religious soldiers can get an exemption that allows them not to shave).
The Nazis cut the beards of Jewish men as a way to demonstrate control — to humiliate Jews by showing them that they don’t have power even over their own bodies. The choice of the beard is intentional. The Nazis attacked the visible element of being Jewish and declared it not welcomed by destroying it.
That is how dehumanization happens. That is how shame is developed. In silence, standing, cutting a part of you so that your body is cleared of your identity. It is cutting the beard, forcing women to stand naked, replacing your name with a tattooed number — those actions of the Nazis were the ways to break any semblance of pride of being Jewish. Shame makes people hide, not resist.
Johnson didn’t have the opportunity to resist. Though no team or school member directed him to cut his dreadlocks and he made the decision on his own, the weight of his team’s success was on his shoulders. He did what black people are time-and-again told to do by authority figures — he complied even when the request was unreasonable. The price of noncompliance, of asserting your rights, is just too high. Even if the referee just enforced a rule, was there really no other solution? Was there really no regulation hair cover anywhere to be found? Or was asking a black teenager to sacrifice part of his identity just the easiest and fastest way to get on with the match?
Johnson went on to win and eventually his hair will grow back — but the lifelong consequences of this experience can’t be quantified. Witnessing images of the humiliation of Jews stuck with me for decades. I can only imagine how this event will stick with Johnson and his family.