Thursday 21 June 2018

The -ism Series (29): Gingerism

"Growing up as a redhead I was lucky enough to escape with just the occasional name-calling - having the surname Jaffa was no doubt a double-whammy. But attacking someone on the basis of their hair colour can be every bit as damaging as persecuting someone for their race (sic) or religion, and therefore, in some cases, needs to be taken just as seriously."
Sharon Jaffa, journalist

Ginger-baiting is discussed as a British phenomenon. At the same time, Britian is "the most red-headed part of the world" (via). Children are bullied at school because of the colour of their hair, women are stereotyped as fiery, sensuous, alluring, and emotionally instable, men suffer from more abuse (via and via). According to a study, nine out of ten ginger-haired men have been bullied (via).
In the US, red hair is not associated with teasing or bullying, it may even be considered as glamorous (via). In other European countries it is "celebrated and seen as something going back to the Vikings, representing strength and vigour" (via). Culture and gender play a role: Women with red hair in the U.S. are less anxious than men with red hair in the U.K. (O'Regan, 2014). Speculations about the reasons why there is gingerism in the U.K. range from Shakespeare's menacing characters having red hair, anti-Irish sentiment in the 19th century (via), redheads being accociated with sin and accused of being witches and burnt in the 15th century, to Ancient Egypt where the red-haired god Set who was believed to cause earthquakes and thunderstorms  and was calmed down by his worshippers by sacrifycing humans, i.e. redheads (via). "Just why this prejudice persists in 21st-century Britain is a mystery." (via)

A problem often mentioned is that nobody seems to feel responsible to protect those affected. It is not racism, not sexism, there are no marches, no education campaigns (via). The majority seems to think that it is acceptable to "slag off" people with red hair (Thorne, 2011).
"Red hair is an issue. Particularly in this country. Teachers often let it [bullying] happen because there isn’t a stigma around it in the way there is, quite rightly, about something like racism." Lily Cole
While some seem to think that treating gingerism like e.g. racism, sexism or homophobia could be a promising way to tackle the problem, others see discrepancies. Gingerism is tragic and wrong but not necessarily an -ism that can be compared to the core diversity dimensions and the discrimination mechanisms associated with them:

I'm a proud ginger and I've been abused, insulted and even, as a child, assaulted and bullied for it. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, but I'm pretty sure I have never been denied a job or the lease on a flat because of my complexion. I haven't been stopped and searched by police 25 times within a year because I am ginger, or casually assumed to be a threat, a criminal or a terrorist. I am not confronted by political parties and movements, some with democratically elected representatives, which would like to see me deported from the country or granted second-class citizenship.
Likewise, no one has been putting up posters recently calling for me to be executed for gingerness. There are no respected religious leaders telling me that my very existence is sinful and that I'm heading for an eternity in hell. Nobody wishes to bar me from marrying my partner, wherever and however we choose, because she has (peculiarly, I will be the first to admit) fallen in love with a ginger.
For that matter, if we ever did get married, neither she nor I have grown up in a world where I could be raped with impunity as the effective property of the non-ginger party. Nobody would have ever denied me a mortgage under my own name, as happened during our parents' generation, or asked to talk to the non-ginger of the house about technical or mechanical matters. I haven't heard any politicians or newspaper headlines, this week or any other, assume that if one of us stays at home to look after the kids it will inevitably be the redhead.
Racism, sexism and homophobia are not just woven into the fabric of our history, they are living dynamics in our culture, even in our economy. They are, to greater or lesser extents, systematic and institutional in most aspects of life and the struggles to remove them are intrinsic to wider political battles over the very nature of our society, public policy and economic system. In that light, I would not hesitate to add disablism to the list of systematic oppressions.
After finally breaking free of the shackling language of "cripples" and "invalids" and securing the legal rights to access work and social participation, disabled people now face a twin-pronged, co-ordinated attack from politicians and press, who demonise them as scroungers and malingerers while snapping thread after thread of the safety net which keeps many out of abject poverty, squalor and indignity. That is institutional discrimination and oppression of the most shameful kind. To even suggest redhaired people face similar issues is insulting, verging on the obscene.
Anti-ginger prejudice and bullying is real and harmful, but the idea that it equates to these systems of oppression is fundamentally flawed. It assumes that all forms of prejudice and discrimination are equal and occurring in the same context when they really do not. It assumes that all forms of discrimination are the products of individual bigotry and irrational prejudice rather than structural and institutional divides.
Ally Fogg

"Certainly, working with young people, it is an issue that comes up again and again. We have had cases where they have gone to the extent of dying their hair jet black or another colour to escape the abuse. We have also had young girls coming in for group sessions in which they will not take off their hats the entire time. If you look at any school now in towns and cities across the country, the diversity will be huge. It is quite disturbing that despite that diversity, and the amazing work going on to celebrate it, there are still these issues. There is no logic to this. It is ingrained in some part of our folklore."
Claude Knights

"Childhood can fuzz into a set of fudged impressions, but I would be surprised if the colour of my hair wasn’t brought up almost every single day for great swathes of my younger years. I’d frequently be called Ginger or Carrot Top by other pupils and at some point during my journey through an all-boys school, Ginger evolved into an altogether more aggressive-sounding Ginga with a hard G. The most creative refrain was Duracell – a reference to a battery’s rusty top."
Matthew Stadlen

- - - - - - -
- O'Regan, K. (2014). Red hair in popular culture and the relationship with anxiety and depression. Cork: B.A. Thesis
- Thorne, T. (2011). The 100 Words that Make the English. London: Abacus.
- photographs of Senta Berger via and via and via


  1. Thank you, Kenneth and Macy, for dropping by and leaving comments. Have a nice Monday!