My name is Marc Crouch. In August 2010 I set up a website called Hot For Ginger, where this article was originally published. The purpose of that website was twofold: to put redheads in touch with each other and people who appreciate them, and also to promote a better attitude towards redheaded people in broader society.
Why the latter? Most redheads will know the answer from personal experience. Nearly all of us have, unfortunately, been subjected to some form of bullying, ranging from light teasing to full on assault, simply because of our hair colour. For me, I had it continuously throughout my schooling, from having my head flushed down a toilet at aged 4 to having rocks thrown at me aged 13. At age 17 I was rejected by a girl I liked because she thought gingers were “disgusting”. Amongst my close friends I have always been the ginger one and the subject of endless jokes, many of which were very far over the line during my teenage years. But I learned to brush them off over time, even laugh at most of them (ginger jokes can be funny, like any jokes can). As I got older, I travelled and met people from outside the UK, and discovered that ginger-shaming – or gingerism as it’s sometimes called – is actually quite isolated to a small handful of countries and cultures. Elsewhere, attitudes towards redheads range from ambivalence to to outright reverence. I was lucky to gain this perspective, lucky to acquire great friends who barely saw my hair colour, and eventually came to own my marginalising feature. Most people don’t mean anything by it.
Gradually, incidents of what I considered more serious teasing and bullying dwindled to zero and I stopped worrying about being a ginger. In fact, thanks to my involvement with Hot For Ginger and the broader redhead community, I started to really enjoy it. And it felt like attitudes at large were changing too.
Then in December 2015 I was violently assaulted in an incident of anti-ginger abuse, and I was reminded in the most brutal way of how much of an illusion that was. Anti-ginger abuse is still alive and millions still suffer daily from it.
So I need to talk about it, because this is a problem that goes much deeper than most people realise.
Is nowhere sacred?
The most shocking aspect of the 2015 incident was where it happened. I was at a pre-Christmas cocktail party where the main focus was on networking and hobnobbing with other industry professionals. Of course, a lot of alcohol was consumed at this event and I was not in any way sober. But neither was I hopelessly drunk; just drunk enough to find myself in a situation where I was trying to impress a small group of people with the only magic trick I know (I can tie a knot in a piece of string with just one hand… trust me, it looks more impressive than it sounds). As often happens, a small crowd developed around me made up of onlookers urging me to repeat the trick over and over again to see if they could work out how it was done.
While I was obliging the crowd, a heckler piped up from the back. It started off innocently with some comment about Paul Daniels (rest in peace) but then somehow segued pretty quickly into comments about witchcraft and how gingers are the devil and have no soul. At first I laughed, then the comments got nastier, so I heckled back, then I asked him to be quiet, at which point the comments became nastier still until, eventually, I had had enough. I walked up to him and he immediately hit me square in the face. Twice. I did not have my hand raised (witnesses have confirmed that) and I did not try and hit him; he simply went for me. Blood was drawn from my forehead and nose, and the next day the rings around my eyes went a deep shade of purple. A good punch, you might say.
I had managed to stop the bleeding by this point, but the cuts and lumps are very evident.
Not a pretty sight, I’m sure you’ll agree. And all this at a cocktail party, not a school playground.
The unacknowledged taboo
The thing that upset me the most, however, was not the assault itself. To be fair, the guy probably thought I was coming to hit him and acted instinctively (he obviously knows from experience how to throw a punch). What upset me the most, and what my actual problem is – concerns the general reaction to the whole incident.
Once the initial chaos immediately following the assault had died down, the person who attacked me actually came over to apologise. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “I’m not like that normally, I don’t know what came over me”. As he held out his hand I hesitated to take it, because a question burned in my mind straight away. I asked, “What are you apologising for: hitting me or saying the nasty things you said in the first place?”. His reaction was depressingly familiar.
He immediately snickered, shook his head and replied “I’m not apologising for what I said, you need to get a better sense of humour”. And suddenly, it was apparently all my own fault for not just laughing along with the “joke”. Silly me.
If you’re ever been bullied then you’ve very likely heard some variation of the same thing. It’s a remarkable deflection of responsibility from an ignorant human being who doesn’t want to let the effort required in thinking about someone else’s feelings get in the way of his attempts to “have a laugh”. It goes without saying that bullies usually act like this as a way of earning attention, which of course was the case here too. I was the centre of attention for a second, he didn’t like that, so out came the abuse. Fairly standard, if depressing. For me, it triggered memories of the things the nastier kids at school used to say to me when I complained about, say, being shot at with a BB gun (which happened when I was 14… “ginger hunting”, it was called).
But there was also a suppressed sense around the room that people agreed with him. It was muttered in mono-syllabic whispers and concerned-yet-disapproving facial expressions which were subtle code for “you kind of asked for it”. In the eyes of a lot of people in the room, I overreacted to a joke.
It would be discrimination if “ginger” was replaced with ______________
I’ve often heard people use this argument: if you replaced “ginger” with “black” or “asian” then a lot of liberally deployed comments and “jokes” would be considered racist. The normal counter to that line of debate is that redheads are not actually a race and have not suffered anywhere near to the same extent as many other oppressed minorities, historically. The first point is a purely semantic point. You can extract several convincing arguments from the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “race” that would support redheads being a race, but I’m not sure this channel of discussion actually achieves anything. The second question – is gingerism comparable to racism? – is something that still needs to be explored.
First, let me make one thing clear straight away: I do not believe gingerism and racism are equivalent. Disregarding semantics, historical persecution of redheads in the middle ages, and even the fact that the redhead gene actually comes from Africa rather than the Celts, I believe racism to be a much bigger and more disturbing issue than gingerism.
The real problem is not the severity of gingerism as an issue, but the fact that it’s generally not even accepted as an issue at all.
Let’s try and position it realistically. I would suggest that discrimination against red hair is on a similar level to discrimination against disabled people, obesity and the mentally ill: it’s horrible and hurtful, but you’re not going to get arrested for it. Abuse against redheads, however, is usually dismissed as just generic teasing or general bullying in the same category as being abused for wearing glasses or for being short. The difference is that you are unlikely to be shut out of everyday things like job opportunities or travel for being short or wearing glasses, but such things do happen to people who are ginger, just as they do to people who are disabled, mentally ill, gay, black or obese. And yet, whilst the latter four are widely protected against discrimination, redheads are not.
Do people really hate red hair?
There is a theory put forward by sociologists and psychologists that the onslaught of political correctness has created so many taboos that sometimes people just vent at whatever is still considered non-taboo. In which case, us gingers end up getting the brunt of a lot of unrelated frustrations simply because it’s still societally okay to target us. To quote a BBC article on this subject:
Workplace psychologist Professor Cary Cooper, of Lancaster University, says abuse can be “an unhealthy release valve for stress” and redheads, as a visible minority not protected by law, have become a target.
In my case, the attacker seemed to genuinely believe that what he said wasn’t harmful, at least initially. There have been many other situations in my life where a similar disconnect has been demonstrated, for example a few years ago when I was participating in an office chat and somebody chimed in with “If I had a ginger baby I would drown it immediately”. Everybody laughed (except me), but strangely nobody looked at me for reaction or – conversely – attempted to avoid eye contact with me. The joke wasn’t even directed at me or about me; the group simply didn’t make the connection between that joke and how that might be construed by the ginger in their midst. Nobody even thought that it might be offensive to a redhead. Which is quite incredible when you think about it.
This, to me, is the real problem. If people don’t even realise that anti-ginger comments are hurtful to gingers, then bullying is going to continue to flourish with redheads as regular victims. And the issue seems to be that no line has been drawn as to where teasing crosses over into abuse. Common sense is not, apparently, enough.
Our duty as redheads: raise the awareness
I do not generally advocate legal protection against mere words. But I do and always will advocate a firm stance against bullying, particularly towards younger people who are more vulnerable to the effects of it, and there are many who suffer seriously at the hands of bullies who single them out for having red hair. It is our duty as redheads to make people aware – non-violently of course – of when they are making ginger-related comments that overstep the mark, otherwise bullying will continue and the kind of nonsense that I had to endure as a kid will carry on forever. We will be dismissed as being over-sensitive or not getting the “joke”, but over time, after hearing it often enough, the message will slowly sink in. I suspect that my attacker will think twice from now on about crossing the line so readily in future, and that’s the best I can hope for out of that situation for now.
For me, as a 38-year-old who has been bullied from a young age for having red hair, the damage is already done and undone. But having come through into adulthood as a relatively well-adjusted person despite being constantly aware, at some level, of the ever-present risk of being singled out for being ginger at any time, I consider it my duty to do what I can to help other redheads who are still struggling to reconcile that fact.
So let me spell it out. This is a joke:
Q: Whats the difference between a ginger and a brick? A: At least a brick gets laid.
This is not a joke:
“I heard ginger girls like being raped and all ginger kids are just rape abortions that their mothers couldn’t afford.” (this is what the guy said that made me lose control that night)
If you need me to explain why the second one isn’t funny then I’m going to guess this entire article is lost on you.
So next time somebody makes a joke that’s over the line, tell them it’s not cool. They will dismiss you, but it will trigger a bell in the back of their mind that may eventually ring loud enough to stop them in future. And if you see somebody being physically bullied for being ginger, just remember that it is very unlikely to be the first time such a thing has happened to that person. In fact, it’s likely just a footnote in a lifelong history of bullying that they have had to endure. Be sympathetic, and don’t turn your back on them.