I was born with light red hair. Back in the day it was called strawberry blonde which I never really understood, because strawberries are actually really red! Sometimes and more ostentatiously I was a Titian blonde, but apart from the odd building site worker yelling “Hey ginge” from time to time, I was never subjected to any sort of name calling, teasing or harassment. In fact it was generally a source of affectionate banter.
Like all the old wives tales associated with this colouring, I am inclined to be a little hot-headed, I bleed profusely when cut and I am easily anesthetized. I break away from the curve as I have fewer freckles (angel’s kisses) than most redheads. Should I decide to grill myself like a vegetable on the beach, I could sport a sun tan – if I wanted one. I am a higher risk for skin cancer, so always wear a hat and factor 50 sunscreen. Over the years like most with my colouring, I haven’t gone grey, merely faded to a sort of sandy blonde, counteracted with some assistance from my dear friend L’Oreal. To the best of my knowledge I have never turned into a vampire.
So I was surprised to learn that there is a growing move for redheads to become a “protected minority” as a result of the increased incidence of bullying and discrimination. This is not only in schools where only the quickest search will reveal horrendous incidents reported, but also a comparable growth in workplace bullying, ranging from corporate settings to the NYPD. I also found a plethora of web sites set up exclusively to report such incidents and to offer support to this minority.
The ginger gene
In 1995, Professor Jonathan Reese discovered that mutations of the gene MC1R on chromosome 16 were responsible for red hair (known as the “ginger gene”). The gene mutation responsible for red hair in humans probably arose 20,000-40,000 years ago. It occurs naturally on approximately 1–2% of the human population more frequently (2–6%) in people of northern or western European ancestry, and less frequently in other populations.
As with any minority, throughout history reactions have varied from admiration, suspicion to ridicule. Redheads were burnt at the stake in medieval England as witches. Aristotle was said to have called them ” emotionally un- house broken” although that has never been substantiated. Across the globe, proverbs and warnings are centred around the negative aspects of unfortunate encounters with persons of red hair colouring.
But why in this day and age this sort of prejudice exists is a mystery. One explanation offered by a social historian contact, is that with all other sorts of blatant discrimination now outlawed or considered politically incorrect, (colour, gender, physiology, sexual, nationality) the bullies amongst us have been left with few targets for their vicious invective. Are redheads therefore becoming one of the last unprotected minorities?
Let’s find out!
Joel, 29, works in Sales Accounts for a U.K. based insurance company. He has very short hair which he keeps in a number 5 buzz cut. To you and me this is street speak for extremely short hair, but I suppose on trend with today’s fashion. It doesn’t seem out-of-place in the centre of business London. Joel’s hair colour is naturally what you and I would call chestnut, a rich brown. But when the sun shines on it some copper tints and glints are visible. Don’t people pay fortunes to have such highlights put into their hair I mused? Not Joel. He cuts his hair every two weeks. Why? “To avoid teasing and bullying. I got sick of the comments. I also worried that my hair colour would be an issue for promotion”
I should add that Joel is over six-foot and a rugby player, built like a tank, so unlikely to be physically abused, but clearly took to heart the verbal jibes. This is in stark contrast to Alex Kosuth-Phillips who was attacked and his jaw broken in Birmingham, U.K. simply because of the colour of his hair
However this is not a British phenomenon, although with the nature of the gene it is more likely to be found in certain ethnic groups and therefore geographies. Incidents are widely reported in Canada, Ireland, Australia and anywhere Northern Europeans are based or have migrated to. It is almost impossible to believe that the U.S. has a “Kick a Ginger Day” a follow-up from the T.V. show South Park. Marilyn, a Washington based lawyer with Irish heritage, spends over $100 every month colouring her naturally red locks, brunette. “This is not because of anything that has happened in the workplace, but because of the trauma of growing up with red hair and the scars it has left from bullying in school.”
On a more positive note according to a Clairol Color Attitude survey, with 71 percent of redheads saying they feel the word “bold” describes them — 24 points ahead of blondes; 80 percent say they are self-confident — 25 points ahead of blondes. We also have a head start in the health stakes survival game surviving many debilitating illnesses it would seem at a better rate! Gentlemen may prefer blondes, but redheads have more sex, or at least they do in Germany. Some of the most prominent literary figures and leaders in history from Mark Twain, Cleopatra, Cromwell, Vivaldi, Van Gogh and George Washington were all redheads.
So should redheads be placed in a protected category or should they dare to be different? What do you think?