Princess Merida from Disney's Brave looks directly at the camera.
Personal,  Social Commentary

On Being Ginger

Princess Merida

First thing’s first, I will tell you that this post has some language in it and so do the videos. I am not saying that redheads have it as difficult as minority groups that deal with systemic racism or oppression, but I am using us as an example of strange things that people say or do if you stand out as different.  If you’re easily offended by swearing or comedy, this is not the post for you.
Still there?  Okay.  Let’s begin.

I’ve always been a “ginger,” and it’s something that I’ve been thinking quite a lot about it of late.  My hair, when not tamed, has been compared to Merida’s hair.  To put it in perspective, the first time I straightened my hair in high school, I spent the entire day with people not knowing who I was, asking me if I was new, and saying things like, “Sorry.  It’s just that your hair is so red and so curly.  Normally, it enters the room before you do.”  When Brave came out, I had friends calling me going, “They got your hair right” and “Throughout the whole movie, I was thinking, ‘I used to follow that hair around’.”  I have been given notebooks, journals, stickers, and stamps with Merida on them because, “Well, first, there’s her hair.  And then there’s the fact that she’s feisty and fiery and all those other things that redheads are.”  Don’t get me wrong, I actually quite like Merida.  I am glad that the princess who is not all perfect and polished is a feisty redhead with untamable hair and a penchant for standing up for what she believes in.  I like the fact that she essentially says, “Screw tradition” and shoots for her own hand in marriage.  There’s a lot about her that I like, but I always find the comparisons that other people make interesting.

My brother and I in elementary school.

My parents both have brown hair naturally.  My younger sisters are a honey blonde and ash blonde/light brown respectively.  My older brother and I are redheads.  We were both born with a shock top of red hair.  Most of the time, I am not only fine with being different, I revel in it.  Every redhead I know will tell you is that it is impossible to blend in fully.  We are like a fiery beacon.  If there’s a crowd, we’re easily picked out.  This can be a positive, but it can also be a negative.  Thankfully, I learned a long time ago not to take things other people say personally.  If I did, I would spend my entire like angry, hurt, or some combination thereof.  And, frankly, ain’t nobody got time for that.

My brother and I in our uniforms.

People have asked me if I’ve had issues with gingerism.  The short answer is: yes.  I don’t know too many redheads who haven’t dealt with it in some way.  My international friends particularly ask this question on a semi-regular basis.  As an American, luckily, it’s not as big of a deal here as it is in Europe or Australia.  As a kid, there were some horrible nicknames (I’ll get into them at a later point), a few times a basketball was thrown at my head, and another few times a kickball was thrown at my head.  The balls were apparently to check to see if I matched.  I was quite a small kid, so the balls ended up knocking me down and/or giving me bloody noses.  All fun and games on the playground.  Mostly though, when I was teased or bullied in elementary school it had less to do with my hair and more to do with the fact that I was tiny, quiet, and crazy smart.  I was the first grader with the eight hundred page book on her desk who was done with her work earlier than the other students. I was the kid who got bored in the airport and picked up a college philosophy book to read and then explained what I had read to my father.  Yes, I was that kid.  By the age of eight, I told my mother that I had worked out a ratio of how many questions I could answer correctly, the speed at which to complete my work, how many times I could raise my hand, etc. and still fly under the radar so the other kids weren’t mean to me because, “if you’re too smart, the other kids don’t like you.”  So, if nothing else, we know that I stood out for more than just my hair at school.

At church, I was both my father’s daughter and one of very few redheads or blondes in a sea of dark

Me in one of my Easter dresses.

hair.  Growing up in a church that was primarily Greek immigrants, you can imagine that red hair, pale skin with freckles, and eyes that shift through green, grey, and blue were not particularly common traits.  At my church, it wasn’t a negative, like it sometimes could be in other places, but there was quite a bit of strangeness that went with it.  Little yia-yias and papous had a tendency to randomly reach out and stroke my hair.  (This is something that I find still happens today as an adult.)  People would make comments on my hair being like candle flame, a strawberry, and honey in a jar.  My father’s parishioners attributed my rather indignant and spirited temperament to my hair, something that struck me as odd because those sorts of things were typically attributed to everyone else being Greek.  I learned from the church librarian, however, that in Greek mythology, redheads were often the heroes or the gods themselves and I decided it wasn’t such a bad thing.

My high school graduation photo.

Now, a question that I have never received before, but was asked by a black friend of mine who has just discovered gingerism, is if it is as bad as racism.  My answer to that is: No.  The difference being that racism is institutionalized.  I have never been followed around a store with people thinking I was going to steal things because of my red hair.  My friends and students have been as a result of skin color.  I have not been denied apartments or bank loans.  I have not been physically attacked as an adult as a result of my hair.  That sort of behavior stopped when I was a child.  That said, there is a type of discrimination that goes with being a ginger and often the bullying that happens as a child can really affect people as adults.

For example, there are subtle things, like the fact that my mother insisted I identify myself as “strawberry blonde” and not a “redhead” as child.  I later claimed the term redhead for myself and my mother got over it when she realized that I was actually proud of my hair color and she followed suit.  Honestly, I think she was trying to protect me from more bullying, but the fact that she felt that having me identify as a form of blonde would do that is a pretty sad statement.  Then there are the not-so-subtle things…

Tesco got in trouble for this Christmas card.

I’ve had guys who have made assumptions about getting me into bed because of my hair, something that really threw me off when I first heard the drunk comments as I got older.  I’ve had people I don’t know ask questions like, “Does the carpet match the drapes?” or “How does it feel to have no soul?” or “Do gingers date other gingers?”  It’s such a common experience that BuzzFeed even did a video on it.  There have been advertisements, cards, and memes made about redheads that, if they were made about any other minority group (we only make up 1%-2% of the Earth’s population) would be deemed offensive and never get made.  I’m glad I have a thick skin

2000 npower got in trouble for this ad.

and most things don’t bother me, but can you imagine how people would react if the Tesco card above or the 2000 npower ad to the left mocked people for having a darker skin color or talked about someone’s religion? Adults can handle that sort of thing, but I do worry about children internalizing the messages inherent in media like these. Diane Spencer has a solid clip about something that every redhead goes through at some point: coming home after you’re first teased about your hair as a little kid. Heads up, her humor is not, in fact, for little kids or the easily offended. The fact that there is an unofficial Kick-A-Ginger Day (on which people actually do kick and bully redheads) is somewhat crazy to me.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, in 2008, South Park aired the episode “Ginger Kids,” which uses a war between redheads and non-redheads as an absurdist analogy for the ethnic cleansing of the Holocaust. Personally, I think it was rather well done. It plays off of the stereotypes, misunderstandings, and teasing that already occurred as a regular thing for natural redheads and took it to the extreme. The best way to combat issues that deal with “the isms” or unequal attitudes in society is to learn about the experiences of the people who have dealt with the issues. Talk to the bullied about their experience, no matter what the reason, and learn about the damage done. Learning to see both the bullies and the bullied as human beings, is incredibly important.  We have no right to say that something should or should not affect another person. Everyone is going to react differently.

I am, frankly, quite fond of a lot of ginger jokes.  I find them funny most of the time.  I tend to judge jokes based on intention though, and sometimes, those jokes aren’t funny.  I have had to pull kids aside in my classrooms and have conversations about some inappropriate comments and cartoons that have been drawn.  I have friends who are from Australia who have casually used the term “ranga,” which is short for “orangutan,” with me.  I kind of blinked and went, “Um…can we think about that.  You’re literally calling me a monkey…usually, calling someone a monkey doesn’t go over well.”  My Australian friends didn’t understand why this could be a problem.  My experience in the US with that is dramatically different than their experiences.  Diane Spencer has some amazing bits about names that us redheads get called and the headlines/photos that show up in newspapers.

My responses when kids try to see what I will say (I have a reputation for being a bit of a smartass, somewhat sarcastic, and a whole lot of random) falls along the lines of,
“Hmm…if I don’t have a soul, I may just have to borrow yours…” while walking slowly towards him or her with an evil look on my face.  I am also known for responding to comments about why I always wear my hair up with things like, “Well, I woke up this morning and I felt like God was talking to me.  When I looked in the mirror, the burning bush looked back.”  Really, it’s just simpler and more professional for me to braid or twist my hair.  Otherwise, by the end of the day, it’s super frizzy and all over the place.

When I was a kid, I was always looking for redheaded female characters.  It was important to me to see girls who looked like me in books and T.V. shows.  (This is why I will always fight for diversity of abilities, physicalities, and backgrounds in stories).  I devoured books (often five to ten a week), comic books (often two or three a week), and movies that featured redheads.  Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Barbara Gordon/Batgirl and Poison Ivy from Batman, Rogue and Jean Grey from X-MenAmerican Girls’ Felicity, Anne of Green Gables, and Pippi Longstocking were important to me.  This is not to say that characters like Jo from Little Women, Emily from the Emily of New Moon series, or Wonder Woman–all amazingly independent brunettes–were less important to me.  I needed to see characters that were strong, independent, and complex no matter what their hair color was.  It does mean that I felt a special affinity for redheaded characters, just like I do for other redheaded people.  We have all had similar experiences of being an outsider or someone who stood out because of our our looks.  This means that, as an adult, I have a special soft spot for redheaded comedians (many of whom spend a good deal of their shows on being ginger), songs and documentaries about redheads, and youtube videos that subtly joke about gingerism while also making you think about topics that are bigger and tougher (like almost any other ism).  I particularly love Tim Minchin, who manages to combine his personal experiences with comedy and music in the song “Prejudice” while also making you think about the power of language.

My work photo.

I am a proud redhead.  When I wear a wig for Halloween or other costumed events, I often feel like I’ve lost a bit of my identity.  Though I do love wearing another color for a little while–it really does change how people respond to me–I would never dye it another color.

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