Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Is gingerism as bad as racism?

A red-haired family claims to have been driven from their Newcastle home because of abuse. Why is the harassment of redheads dismissed as just harmless fun?

Here's a joke. "What's the difference between a terrorist and a redhead?" Here's the punchline. "You can negotiate with a terrorist."

Is this offensive? If it was made in your workplace, within hearing of a redheaded colleague, would you make a fuss? Probably not.

But mock someone's ethnicity, religion or sexuality and you will attract the beady eye of management. Make a sexist joke and prepare to be dismissed as an antediluvian relic.

Carrot-top, copper-top, ginger-nut, ginger minger, bluey (among Australians), Duracell, Ronald McDonald, Simply Red, Queen Elizabeth. And so on for hours and hours of the typical redhead's life. No wonder some gloss over their hair colour as "auburn" and "strawberry blonde" and even "titian".

Photographer Charlotte Rushton has been chronicling the UK's redheads for a book, Ginger Snaps. Of the 300 she snapped, only two have been spared bullying because of their hair. She herself has suffered verbal abuse from complete strangers.

"I was on the Tube, pregnant, and I was really humiliated by this drunk yob. He was shouting 'do the cuffs and the collars match?' He got right up into my face. You don't do that to other people."

She believes the phenomenon is long-standing and uniquely British in its most virulent form. "In other countries redheads will get teased at school but it stops when they become adults. If you are a woman you are fiery and alluring, beautiful."

In adult life, women get stereotyped and red-haired men take much of the worst abuse. Treatment of red-haired children in school ranges from mild taunts to grim persecution.

Michele Eliot, the American director of British children's charity Kidscape, regularly has significant numbers of red-haired children in courses on coping with bullying. "There is nothing like this in the US where having red hair is not a precursor to having someone abuse you. Red hair is considered glamorous."

Bullies at school and in later life may sense that ill-treatment of the red-haired will not be treated as seriously by the authorities as persecution of other groups.

"Bullies think that person is outside the norm, they will be able to attack them. The bullies find something to pick on. The bully has a problem and needs a victim," Ms Eliot says.

While there has been at least one report of a serious anti-red hair hate crime in the UK - a 20-year-old stabbed in the back in 2003 - it's unclear whose responsibility it is to monitor discrimination. "It is certainly not us," says the Commission for Racial Equality.

Conservative backbencher Patrick Mercer, when recently sacked for alleged racism, sought to get himself out of a hole by comparing treatment of black soldiers to those with red hair. "That's the way it is in the Army. If someone is slow on the assault course, you'd get people shouting: 'Come on you fat bastard, come on you ginger bastard, come on you black bastard.'"

One of these three epithets would now be regarded as totally unacceptable, and possibly against the law. Even the first, mocking someone's weight, is under a sustained assault from feminists and those concerned about what society's treatment of weight issues does to vulnerable teenagers.

But the abuse can be far from innocuous. "We talk about kicking racism out of sport but this is just as bad in its way," said Reading striker Dave Kitson in 2005. He can't have been delighted when the Daily Star reported his remarks under the headline "Kitson's a right ginger whinger". Or when players' association chief Gordon Taylor said: "It belittles racism to compare the two issues."

Journalist Sharon Jaffa - also a red-head - says society must stop its ginger-baiting. "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 or religion, and therefore, in some cases, needs to be taken just as seriously."

Red hair has great cultural resonance. Red is the colour of heat, danger and warnings. When applied to women, it is the colour of sensuousness, fiery temperament and emotional instability.

"Lilith [Adam's lover] was a redhead. It indicates red hair was bad. Shakespeare made all his most menacing characters wear red wigs. That seeps into culture," Ms Rushton says.

So when does this date from? Some claim it could be a throwback to anti-Irish sentiment from the 19th Century and before when the Irish, with a greater prevalence of red hair, were regarded as ethnically inferior.

Anecdotally at least, males get more abuse than females. Patrick O'Sullivan, head of the Irish Diaspora Research Unit, says he has never come across a link. "People could feel forbidden to attack their usual victims and are searching around for ones that have not yet achieved the protection of the law."

Professor Larry Ray, a sociologist at the University of Kent and an expert on racial discrimination, says the perpetrators could be habitual bullies. "If they are engaging in one kind of harassment they are engaging in others. They are looking for targets."

For those who claim their workplace taunts are just harmless banter, it could be stress rather than an anthropological aversion to red hair.

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.

While other forms of the discrimination are the subject of marches, lobbying and education campaigns, redheads cannot expect the arrival of the politically correct cavalry anytime soon.