The Situationist

Gingerism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 1, 2011

B. Greaney wrote this post for the Law & Mind Blog

Well brunettes are fine man
And blondes are fun
But when it comes to getting a dirty job done
I’ll take a red headed woman

~ Bruce Springsteen – Red Headed Woman

While my hair is now shade of auburn, I was admittedly a redhead for most of my adolescent life. With that privilege came the onslaught of nicknames: ginger, carrot top, big red, and more recently, Weasley. Then of course there was that oh-so-famous South Park episode that taught the American public that redheads simply have no souls. Pair these nicknames with expressions like “better dead than red on the head” and the Facebook event “Kick a Red Head Day,” and as you can imagine, there is plenty of material with which to tease a redhead.

To be honest, I, like many of my redheaded friends, are not offended by many of the redhead nicknames for they are often used as terms of endearment by family and friends. Not to mention, blondes do not have it too easy either—I bet every fair-haired individual has been called a “dumb blonde” at least once in his or her life.

However, the teasing of redheads goes one step further. Nowadays, almost no redhead can get by without some degree of sexualization. I can remember back in middle school when a group of boys approached me at the lunch table. One of them finally mustered up the courage to ask, “Do the curtains match the carpet?” All of the boys burst into laughter, so while I had absolutely no idea what they meant, I knew that the jokes had just entered a new terrain—the terrain of sexuality. From that point further, the nicknames expanded to fire crotch, red hair everywhere, ruby pubes, and burning bush, to name a few. I learned to laugh, like most people do, but I am still left wondering about the repercussions of it all.

In doing some research about perception of redheads on the internet, I found this description of a “Ginger”:

A Ginger is the medical term for a “person” affected by the bizarre disfiguring disease known as Gingervitus. Ghoulish symptoms include hair color ranging from an eerie light copper-tone to deep blood red, as well as a translucent to pallid skin tone. Much adversity has been attributed to gingers’ existence throughout history, and while female gingers can be considered attractive, most males of the ginger persuasion seem to resemble animated clowns… Gingers have no soul; This is the underlining cause of their Gingerness. Being tools of the devil, they are marked with the colour of their master.

While that description is obviously in jest, the line between joking and true prejudice is becoming far less clear. In the UK, for example, there are noted accounts of “gingerism” (prejudice against redheads) and “gingerphobia” (hatred towards redheads). It has been speculated that the dislike of red hair in Britain may be a result of the historical British sentiment that individuals of Irish or Celtic decent were ethnically inferior.

Some recent accounts of this prejudice include:

  • An English family that was forced to move twice after being targeted for abuse and hate crime on account of their red hair
  • In 2003, a 20 year old was stabbed in the back for “being ginger”
  • In May 2009, a British schoolboy committed suicide after being bullied for having red hair

Furthermore, in 2007, a UK woman was awarded nearly £18,000 for being sexually harassed at the workplace because of her red hair. In a news report, the woman explained,

“They asked if my head hair was the same colour as the rest of my body hair. They thought it was funny and liked to see me going red in the face with embarrassment.”

As this case shows, what is so interesting about gingerism is that it often manifests as a form of ethnic racism and sexual harassment. Yet, it is a widely accepted form of “joking” in our country, and there are few incidents I could find of reported school bullying or sexual harassment in the workplace. I believe that the reason for this is that society conditions the victims to accept it as normal and not harmful. However, what if we replaced the word “ginger” in the description above with “African American”:

An African American is the medical term for a “person” affected by the bizarre disfiguring disease known as blackivitus. Ghoulish symptoms include skin tone ranging from an eerie light copper-tone to deep brown. Much adversity has been attributed to African Americans’ existence throughout history, and while female African Americans can be considered attractive, most males of the black persuasion seem to resemble animated clowns. African Americans have no soul; This is the underlining cause of their blackness. Being tools of the devil, they are marked with the colour of their master.

If a description such as this were on the internet, I don’t think anyone would considered it a joke. Instead, most of us would agree that those were words of extreme hate. I was disgusted even typing it. So why is it that when the word “Ginger” is used instead of “African American” it all of a sudden becomes so funny?

I could not find any psychological and sociological research that focuses on the topic of gingerism. However, some concepts derived from these fields, such as ingroup/outgroup mentality, perhaps can help explain the abundance of redhead harassment. History and folklore have certainly laid the foundation of redheads being viewed in negative contexts (e.g. redheads were often portrayed as overly sexualized individuals or as witches, devil worshippers, and vampires). This perhaps primes the public to view redheads as the “outgroup,” with blondes, brunettes, and black haired individuals forming the “ingroup.” What other psychological theories do you think can help explain why redheads are harassed, especially in light of high incidence of sexual harassment?

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5 Responses to “Gingerism”

  1. People look for someone different to target. Red-heads, being a small minority, make easy and easily visible targets.

  2. And why red-heads not African Americans? Because they haven’t been slaves or subject to racist legislation. It’s nasty but it’s part of general human nastiness, the pleasure that unfortunately too many people take in getting under someone’s skin.

  3. Pippa said

    As a redhead I gotta say comparing the taunts to the systematic economic and societal deprivation that African Americans suffer goes way too far. I have heard my fair share of sexual comments, but it’s just not the same. And it’s not a result of me being taught to normalize it. The sexual comments are just the usual sexual harassment, it’s just channeled through the hair thing and that doesn’t make it any better or worse, it is what it is and it sucks and contributes to rape culture et cetera but redheads have no special claim on sexual harassment. Women with larger than average breasts go through far worse. Furthermore, insofar as comparing this to racism against black people, it’s not like anyone tells me I need to straighten/braid/pull back my hair in order to be deemed professional, as happens with many black women. My hair in its natural state will be commented on, but I’m under no pressure to change it. I guess England has some weird thing going on but honestly even when I was there people commented on that less than my nationality. And I definitely get more comments from women than men on it as a mere compliment kind of a thing.

  4. [...] Gingerism (thesituationist.wordpress.com) [...]

  5. auby said

    @Pippa

    Why can’t gingerism be compared to racism? Is there some quota of suffering that must be reached in human history first? Because I’d say that quota was reached long before Americans were importing African slaves. In Northern Europe a few hundred years people were burned alive simply for having red hair incase they were a witch, I think they would have jumped at the chance of slavery given the choice of that or such a horrible death. In Ancient Egypt it was the same deal.

    I live in Switzerland and even today that association between red hair and witchcraft is present.

    It feels to me that human beings have an innate fear of difference or anything not belonging to their “tribe”. Society tells us we aren’t allowed to publicly show this fear, so it gets pent up in the less well evolved people. So they need something like gingerism as a release, and society generally allows it.

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