Given the suicides of bullied redhead children, there have been calls from rights groups to identify verbal abuse of red hair as a hate crime.
“I was just standing outside a pub having a smoke with a pal and then out of nowhere I get punched in the face by a random stranger and called a ‘ginger bastard’”.
Tom Healy is a 26 year old shop assistant who lives near Glasgow, Scotland. He is describing an unprovoked attack last month that left him with a bleeding nose. It is not the first such attack he’s experienced.
Naturally occurring red hair is a rarity. Only between 1 to 2 percent of the global population has it. The highest numbers can be found in the UK and Ireland. Though mostly found and associated with northern Europe, the origin of the gene causing ginger manes goes back to central Asia approximately 70,000 years ago.
Tom’s experience is not unique. There is a long standing stigma attached to red hair in the UK (arguably the nation most hostile to this hair colour) despite a recent rise in popularity of the colour in the fashion industry and many high profile redheaded celebrities.
Why are people being attacked and ridiculed simply for the colour of their hair?
38 year-old red-haired Neil Scott from the north of England writes a blog about this unique hair shade and is also the author of An Esoteric History of Red Hair. As a child, he can remember feeling frustrated for being excluded from playground football games for his hair. He believes the stigma comes from it being a minority trait: “People that look different from the norm will always be considered outcasts in any society. I think red hair is viewed as 'freakish' or abnormal due to its uncommonness”.
Helen Cuinn, a red-headed actor and director from Glasgow, has had many unsettling experiences including “people throwing things out of the windows of passing cars; complete strangers running up to me and sticking their hands into my hair or pulling my ponytail from behind”. The worst was a classroom incident. “ A fellow pupil put a lighter to my hair”.
She researched the stigma for a theatre show she produced in the late 00s and found some deeper reasons for it. “In the UK we have current social practices that stem from Protestant, Catholic and even pagan thinking. We might not know where these beliefs and ideas come from or the stories, people and myths that created the beliefs and ideas but we carry them on through our social conditioning”.
These historical beliefs include: Eve becoming a redhead after eating from the tree of knowledge thus the hair colour being associated with gullibility and disobedience; Judas being portrayed with red hair so creating an association with betrayal; and the persecution of people believed to be witches in the 16th century, many of whom had red hair.
The Irish Factor
There is a common but incorrect stereotype across the UK that red hair originates from Ireland. In the 1850s poverty led to thousands of Irish people migrating across the Irish Sea. Being low class migrants of a different religion- Catholicism- which the British Protestant establishment had fought wars against, they were viewed by many as a disloyal social burden.
Could historical anti-Irishness also play an unconscious role in the abuse faced by redheads?
Tom, who is of Irish origin, believes so. “In some of the attacks people explicitly associated my hair colour with being Irish and I think in other attacks where this isn’t explicit it could be a cultural hangover that even the attacker might not be aware of. They think it’s hair colour they are attacking but it’s actually what that hair colour has incorrectly represented to their hidden prejudices”.
Helen adds: “It could connect in with both direct and vague mistrust of Catholics which is extremely prevalent in Scotland. It’s an issue of class, familial and social conditioning”.
Tom accepts this is unlikely to be true for all anti- ginger abuses. “Bullies often pick on whatever is an easy or obvious target to express their random nastiness – different weight, height, clothing or hair colour. It’s not always associated with specific subtle prejudices or hatreds but we shouldn’t ignore these. With Brexit and nationalism, especially in England, they could get worse”.
In recent years, there have been reports of increasing calls to police complaining of anti-ginger abuse. However, unlike abuse based on religion, race, gender or sexuality, verbal abuse of red hair is not a hate crime. Given the suicides of bullied redhead children, there have been calls from the likes of the UK Anti-Bullying Alliance to make it so.
Neil thinks this is the wrong approach. “Focusing on prejudice against a specific trait or group of people is usually counterproductive. We end up just policing language instead of actual abuse. People making a harmless joke about red hair may end up getting in trouble, even though their intentions are without malice. This fear of "offending" people then leads to more awkwardness and division”.
Helen disagrees: “There is a real dark side that sits underneath the gentle ribbing of our carrot topped brothers and sisters. While I would never assume to understand the complex and often difficult experience of growing up non-white in the UK, there are some parallels between the journeys of anyone who is treated as inferior based on their skin or hair tone. I’ll stop there, as I’m sure my white Scottish privilege is colouring my judgement”