I’ve been wearing a beard for about 15 years. Even though I have had to shave it off a few times, and that it has turned undoubtedly gray, I prefer it. The beard has become a part of who I am. Some may call it my identity. I don’t. I say: I wear a beard, it’s not who I am.

Sometimes I wear the beard short, as I do today, and I have worn it long. When it’s long, I have seen changes over the years to how people react to my beard. Before the “Duck Dynasty” craze and hipsters in metropolitan areas making long beards cool, I picked up some sometimes-cruel looks and comments. Some people, who we will call “the clean-shaven” — whether they were men or women — would categorize me and my bearded brethren as sloppy, unclean, unprofessional, sometimes hoity-toity when it didn’t fit and even criminal.

It was hard in the ‘90s and early parts of this century for people with beards to be treated fairly as the good husbands, fathers and citizens we all were. People viewed many of us as if we had something wrong with us because we wore a beard.

Over the past decade or so, things have changed. Society accepts people with any style of beard. I have seen dozens of people who were cleanly shaven all their lives now sporting a full set of whiskers at a variety of lengths. Long gone seem to be the days of the bearded treated like outcasts, like people who are less than others in society. Now, we are all seen as equals among men: bald men with beards, long-haired men with beards, short beards, long beards, goatees, Van Dykes and the chin curtain or Lincoln-style beard. The world is a better place for the bearded.

As I said, some of this acceptance is due to the popularity of the “Duck Dynasty” Robertson clan, where nearly all the men, except for the youngest featured on the show, sported long beards. Duck Dynasty viewers saw a family with values, living a lifestyle that was foreign to most of the TV audience but was one that most people wanted: love, togetherness and acceptance, even if you look different to the rest of the world.

Within the microcosm of facial hair, both the clean-shaven and the bearded realized that we all have a place in society. We are all unique. We all bring something to the table.

The days when people identified themselves solely by their facial hair, or lack of it, were gone. What remained was a period when everyone got along no matter what their level of beardedness.

The clean-shaven stopped looking at the beard and saw only the person. The bearded stopped spending time feeling ridiculed by the clean-shaven. Instead, the bearded pulled themselves up, accepted all people as the same, facial hair or not, and moved on with their lives without focusing on identity.

The bearded found no need to examine any privileges that the clean-shaven experience in life. The examination was unnecessary when the bearded realized that it wasn’t benefits and opportunities the clean-shaven enjoyed. It was that the bearded allowed people to identify them by their facial hair and not by who they are as people. Once the need for focusing on identity passed, so did the bigotry by the bearded toward the clean-shaven. For the clean-shaven, the balance swung when the facial hairless started to realize that classifying people — segregation, if you will — into groups (bearded and nonbearded) was unfair. When realizing that people with beards were no different than them, the healing was able to begin.

So, no matter what kind of differences people possess that are keeping them apart, commonality can be found. We, at all times, have to look beyond identity and stop pigeonholing people by how they look.

On an added note, I am also a big man. As my beard has gone gray, I have felt a sense of ill-ease around Christmastime. I usually stay hidden away at home until the yuletide passes. No more. I confidently will walk outside my house this year during the holidays believing and even relishing that the days of people thinking I am Santa Claus in street clothes have passed.

Duke Conover is editor of the Goldsboro News-Argus. Email Duke at dconover@newsargus.com or call him at 252-676-6813.