DON'T Call Me "Ginger"

So today, after being called at on the street by a stranger, I've finally hit my breaking point on the word "ginger".

I have typically been quite hesitant to write about my experiences as a redhead. The biggest reason is because, as a normative-presenting white male, I've lived a life of extraordinary privilege. I feared that discussing a subject which, almost necessarily, might use some of the modern language we employ to discuss prejudice and even oppression, would not only be inappropriate and disrespectful to many groups (who suffer much worse and more frequent injustices) but also wouldn't be received well by my peers, many of whom keenly follow issues of social justice.

That said, one of the things I've been working on lately is finding my own voice, and not feeling like my aforementioned privilege is a reason I shouldn't stand up for myself when I feel I'm being wronged. What follows is my experience, from my shoes as someone with red hair. I don't presume to compare my experience to that of anyone from a different marginalized group, though I would argue that my experience does inform my sense of empathy on certain matters.

With that baggage stowed, let's begin.

All throughout public school, K-12, there was a good chance that I was one of between two-to-five kids at my entire school with red hair. It is, and remains, a pretty uncommon feature, especially in a more multicultural society (ie: one not entirely composed of European-descended persons). Red hair is visible at a fair distance, and as such, growing up red-headed is like having a target marker for bullies painted on the pack of your head. I was bullied, frequently, often by older kids who I didn't know, who had no grievance with me other than I was easy to pick out in a crowd. Everything that follows in my identity as a redhead is informed by that abuse, so if you're here to call me oversensitive, I politely suggest you keep that to yourself.

It's worth mentioning that "oversensitivity" is one of those negative redhead tropes that I've perennially been accused of. Even my own mother would try (unsuccessfully, I might add) to calm my tantrums by chortling sidelong to bystanders that it was my redhead's temper at work.

But oversensitivity is just one rose in the shitty bouquet of assumptions people make about redheads.

Just ask popular culture. We're devious and ruled by our sexual desires. If you asked Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park, they'd tell you that we're creepy and have no souls. Redhead men are often portrayed as either dopey and weak or as borderline sociopaths. Redhead women, meanwhile, are often smouldering sex kittens – a portrayal which, in a culture of sexual assault, is incredibly harmful.

I'm glad that Game of Thrones brings us the flowery descriptor "kissed by fire", and strong, principled, characters such as Sansa Stark, Ygritte, and the incomparable (and sexy) Tormund Giantsbane. But the show also brings us the Red Priestess Melissandre, whose multitude of horrible and callous sins is surmounted only by the frequency with which she takes off her robe, as well as the ill-fated prostitute Roz.

To break with my formal language for a moment, I must digress: I fucking hate the term "ginger". Not only do I hate being called a ginger, but the term itself makes no sense. Most ginger root is pale yellow, the flowers are often red. Is it about being "spicy" somehow? I can only assume that the term is quite old and dates from a period where some languages didn't have a word for the colour orange. It's a nonsensical term that's due for retirement, but has unfortunately enjoyed a resurgence thanks in part to South Park.

I know that this blog will get some pushback; Again, mostly from people who will play the oversensitivity card. To them, I counter thus: when red-haired kids are no longer regularly beaten bloody by their peers for having red hair, in part because some people think it's funny to celebrate Kick a Ginger Day, then you can tell me my complaints are oversensitive. Bullying leaves you scarred for life, and we won't build a better, healthier society by encouraging it, under any guise.

I'll wrap up here and let the commenters on Facebook have their say. But I'd like to go out with a quote by one of my favourite Star Trek characters, B'Elanna Torres:

"When the people around you are all one way and you're not, you can't help feeling like there's something wrong with you."

I realize that I'm on somewhat shaky ground here, since B'Elanna was talking about race in this scene (or more precisely, species, as a half-Human/Klingon). I nevertheless feel that the sentiment is portable, especially when we're talking about the intrinsic way someone was born, or a way that they immutably are. People feel it necessary to remind me that I'm a little bit different than they are on a quite regular basis. I'm okay with the compliments, but I could do with less of the presumptions. They build up over time and make me feel, as B'Elanna says, that something is wrong with me. There isn't.

This article is about my experiences, my self-worth, and my comfort. It is something I needed to say, and I will remain glad that I said it.

ADDENDUM: My friend Eva (also a redhead) provided a much-needed dose of levity by linking me this performance by English-Australian comedian Tim Minchin, who says everything I need to say, only funny.