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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 June 2007, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Is gingerism as bad as racism?
Girls (Pic: Charlotte Rushton)

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

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."

Charlotte Rushton
I was on the Tube, pregnant, and I was really humiliated by this drunk yob
Red-haired photographer Charlotte Rushton
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.

Verbal abuse

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.

Sir Winston Churchill
King David
Queen Boudicca
Pharaoh Ramses II
Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I
Sir Winston Churchill
"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.

Girl next to fan
Children face a tough time at school (Pic: Charlotte Rushton)
"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.

Racism row

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.

Woman with red hair (Pic: Charlotte Rushton)
Caused by mutated MC1R gene
Most prevalent in far northern and western Europe
May have survived due to increased vitamin D production in pale-skinned
'Sexual selection' also possible
Disagreement over redheads' reputed higher pain tolerance
"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."

Redheads sacrificed in ancient Egypt
Associated with witches and vampires in Europe
Reputed to bleed more
Mary Magdalene, Adam, Judas and even Jesus depicted as redheads
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.

Stress release

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.

Prince Harry
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.

Below is a selection of your comments. The only time the colour of my hair was referred to was by my art teacher at school who would call me carrot top. Personally I just thought that he was ridiculous, as carrot tops are green not red.
Helen, Milton Keynes

Redheads are feared because they are believed in folklore to be the devil's children and have red hair because they were conceived during their mother's menstruation.A welsh proverb says "os bydd goch, fe fydd gythreulig" or "if he's redhaired then he is of the devil". Yesterday's superstition has become today's teasing.
L, Wales

Well clearly it's wrong to be prejudiced againt a person because of their hair colour. Just as it's wrong to persecute someone for any other reason - because they're fat, or wear glasses, or support Man United, or work in McDonalds, or have bad skin, or listen to Daniel Bedingfield, or play in a 'drum circle'... But it's also 'funny', just as mocking Welsh people is funny. Racism is something completely different, historically and socially. The whole argument is complete twaddle.
Katy, Yorkshire

I oppose "bluey" being included as some of a red-head's taunts. In Australia, this isn't a prejudiced comment, it is a term of endearment. As an Australian living in London, I do not comprehend the prejudice surrounding red-head's. A red-head woman is considered beautiful down under!
Laurel, London

I think red haired men are gorgeous and sexy! If we only had more where we live... export them to the south of Europe, we would welcome them all!
Vina, Lisbon

I did not (could not) understand the joke in the article so it was neither funny nor sad, but to all you redheads the world over, I think you are blessed. I am a black woman and you cannot even begin to understand the silly 'jokes' I have to put up with based on my race and my accent. And I think I am blessed. All others are just 'ordinary'.
Katherine, London

Being one of red-haired identical twins, my sister and I were forever being teased at school. There were howls of laughter when we said we did not have red hair but were were "strawberry blonde". For a time it may have affected us but now in our 50s we realise how lucky we are, hardly any grey hairs and very healthy manes of hair to the envy of much younger females.
Jennifer Nasser, Heathfield, East Sussex

I grew up in London. I had red hair - auburn really (before it went grey)- my mother was always trying to emulate it from a bottle of dye, but no success. Sometimes I was called 'ginger' - but it was not said aggressively or unkindly, it was just a title. Then in 1969, I went to work in Italy and some of my colleaugues called me 'rosso' - they all had black or dark brown hair. They used it as a term of affection, not as an insult. I find it strange that anyone should be abused for the colour of their hair. Perhaps the best defence is simply to shrug and respond, 'So what!'.
Donald Morrison, Lochgilphead, Scotland

Ahem... would I be the only bloke to confess to having a fancy for long, red, curly hair. Gorgeous.
Brian, Ipswich

I grew up in Malta where ginger hair is put in the same bracket as blonde, both considered rare and desirable as being different from the more prevalent Mediterranean dark. I didn't understand the British attitude towards red-heads when I first moved here and I still don't....and now I've married a red-head rugby-player type, I defy anyone to insult him to his face!
Fiona Scerri-Headley, London, UK

The redhead thing does not happen in the US. I have red hair and never got teased. I spent years getting tormented for a physical disability. The monsters at Oley Valley School District would definitely have mentioned my hair too if that was a normal thing in the US.
Barb, Philadelphia, USA

In primary school I would tell boys my red hair was actually gold, and if they married me they would be rich forever! Boys (although 5 years old!) fell for it! As soon as I got a little bit older, the bullying started. I have been spat at, as well as physically and verbally abused in the street because of the colour of my hair. Abuse is abuse, whether sexist, racist, because of the colour of someones skin or because of the colour of someones hair, and abuse should never be tolerated.
Hannah Smith, High Wycombe

I'm a blonde woman and believe it or not a day doesn't go by when I have to contend with "dumb blonde" jokes either by the media or at work. It is seen as very amusing to call blonde people, particularly women I hasten to add, unintelligent, bimbos and clumsy. Where did that image come from? I'll tell you where, the media again! Another negative fictional image they have decided to use over and over again. I don't exactly feel that it has often been a personal vendetta against me but it doesn't half annoy me when I feel I'm fairly intelligent and deep-thinking most of the time!

Grow up Great Britain.
Adele, Birmingham

Last year I took my eleven year-old daughter Georgia to the naval base in Portsmouth where we took a guided tour of a submarine. Unfortunately the guide was a bit of an old sea dog and kept on referring to my daughter as ginger. I could see that she was embarrassed and I was embarrassed for her. However, we both felt even sorrier for the German visitors who were rudely dismissed by the same man.

Being "folicularly challenged", I would laugh at being called "baldy", but times have chnaged to such a ridiculous level due to political correctness, that kids just can't do anything without being challenged or corrected!
Peter Moore, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England

Tristan from Chatham - I don't know what the origin of the 'South Park' episode was, but as an American, I can assert that what the article stated about the lack of prejudice against people with red hair in the US is correct. 'Ginger' is not a term used there to describe redheads, so perhaps Trey Parker (the writer) is familiar with the bias here. No doubt American kids are teased for having red hair, but no more so than any other kids are teased for anything else (name, size, glasses, etc). I was very surprised when I moved to England to find that having red hair would make anyone subject to taunts and discrimination. It is equally as absurd as all other forms of prejudice, which expose the insecurity, meanness and stupidity of those who are guilty of harboring them.
CP, London, UK

I am honestly shocked that such idiocy prevails in a country normally so reasonable. There is a line between teasing and harassment, and the British evidently cross it. In the States we often tell blond jokes, but I've never heard of a blond actually being offended, much less changing their address.
Peter, Seattle, USA

As the proud bearer of a mighty crop of red hair, I should like to remind the mousey coloured masses that on the two occasions during the last 500 years that this country was most in peril, redheads, namely Elizabeth I and Winston Churchill stepped up and met the challenge, of the Spanish Armada and the Nazis respectively. So enjoy your japes and easy insults if you will, but remember that fact the next time a redhead saves the nations's collective skin!
Gavin Happe , Ilford, Essex

I'm a 25 year old ginger female and I am amazed that grown men still feel compelled to shout ¿Ginger¿ at me, usually from the safety of a passing white van. But its not all bad, sometimes they can even be flattering. I¿ve had my fair share of teasing - the references to different bodily parts are unacceptable but you deal with it.
Claire, Manchester

I cannot begin to describe, as a redhead, just how offensive I find the term "ginger". Yet I've heard colleagues and friends use it freely in conversation in reference to a redheaded individual or even direct to my face without batting an eyelid. Maybe they don't realise that years of verbal, and occasionally physical, abuse can be recalled in an instant with the utterance of that one word. I have long felt that such a term should be treated with the same seriousness as those used negatively to describe someone's ethnicity, race, etc.

I also have to add that I've lost count of the number of times I've had the same comment as Charlotte Rushton had on the tube. What's even worse is when the people around actually smile as though the stupid oaf in question had made some intellectually witty comment. If I say anything in response, to this or any other redheaded insult, I clearly can't take "a joke."

However, I wouldn't change my colouring for anything. It is a part of me and my identity and I love its natural uniqueness.
Jo Hobbs, Leicester, UK

I speak as the proud fiancee of a gorgeous red-haired man. My "type" has always been those of a red haired persuasion and I have never encountered any blatent rudeness about any of my boyfriends, although I have been questioned by friends about what I find so attractive. Sadly as we begin to discuss starting a family the same friends are counselling against our procreation lest we produce "ginger babies".
Claire Knowles, Truro, Cornwall

I was surprised and angry when I heard seemingly intelligent people objecting to Patrick Mercer's comments on the radio and TV implying that there was no comparison with calling someone a black bastard and a ginger bastard - that somehow a racial slur was a sacking offence whereas the other was not worthy of consideration.

Personaly although I agree with Patrick Mercer that the army and real life isn't perfect I think that bullying is wrong whatever colour, race or orientation you are. Certainly I have thoughtlessly used deprecating words to describe red haired people in the past - I shall on reflection try to do better in the future in case I cause them any personal angst.
Jamie Taylor, Soho, London

People get teased for all sorts of reasons (too skinny, bald, fat, accent, etc.). Racism is particularly requgnant because of it's historical resonance. This kind of teasing is a different matter entirely. Attacking people verbally is out of order on whatever grounds, but let's not make more and more special cases.
Jonny, Glasgow

My ex-husband's hair is pure ginger. He has the notorious freckles, the lot! No one else in his family (alive) has ginger hair. His dad used to tease him when he was a kid, to build up his resistance to the teasing that is dad knew he was going to get once he started school. My ex husband said that when he started school, he had heard all the names that were called him and even dared them to try and come up with some new ones! He took it in his stride and as an adult, he still gets the odd comment, but all in the fun of the moment.
Steph, Coventry, England

I'de like to know where and when the term 'ginger' became associated with people with red hair. The root ginger is beige, at the most yellow. How does this resemble red hair in any way?
rufus flack, england

I'm a redhead, of the auburn persuasion, and believe me, if someone taunts me about my colouring, they'll soon find out why redheads are reputed to have fiery tempers. I realised when I was still at school that that was the only way to deal with bullies - and it worked. And continues to work. It's time more redheads did the same - stop cringing and start standing up for yourselves! Red and Proud!
Annia, UK

Surely racism is evil because it's a form of prejudice. It isolates an individual or group from the rest of society whether they are Asian, black, Jewish. But to do the same because that person is overweight, has red hair, has large nose etc is no less cruel. The emphasis should not be on racism, Islamophobia or whatever. All prejudice should be outlawed.
Mark, Liverpool

As a child growing up I would often get into fights at school. My brothers who didn't have red hair, never did. I was constantly mocked infront of teachers and they did nothing. Bullying is bullying whether it is due to race, weight, height, wearing glasses, sex, sexually orientation or hair colour. Its just okay to do it because of hair colour.
Ian Watt, London

As a white redhead, I would agree that racism is different from "gingerism" - redheads have not suffered centuries of systematic abuse ranging from slavery to institutional racism. Abuse of redheads is usually personal and does not, for example, affect our life or job prospects.

However, I would say that I have experienced abuse (although not so much as an adult) and I was mightily relieved that none of my children have turned out to have red hair and so they will not have to suffer similar abuse.
Rachel Pearce, Matlock, England

I have long red hair and the guys at work constantly pickup on this fact, but mention someone from a different race with black or brown skin colour and they clam up and get hideously embarressed that someone would dare even mention something along those lines. Its complete double standards and although it doesn't get to me personally it must be classed as being just as bad as "racism" if not another form of it.
Paul May, Southampton England

Gingerism is not the same as racism!! To prejudice against someone on the basis of their skin colour/race depicts a far more dangerous hatred. Somehow i don't think 'ginger nut' is exactly in the same league as some of the more 'colourful' lingo directed at most non-whites, in their daily lives.
Dr Ami, Manchester

Growing up in an Irish Catholic community in London in the 70s, my ginger hair didn't get me singled out for attention. However, I feel spiteful hostility to gingers is definitely on the rise. The lack of challenge allows people who enjoy being horrible about other people, but can't any more to other groups, to get away with it, from individuals to businesses and advertisers. The criticism of Steve McClaren shows this: a caller to a BBC phone-in described him as "a typical useless ginger bloke", and this ridiculous comment went unremarked by the host. Because of this unchecked cruelty, I'm relieved none of my children are ginger.
Stephen Martin, London

I'm not sure that the statement "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." is entirely accurate. I recently watched the South Park (season 9) episode entitled "Ginger Kids" which tactfully deals with the subject, but indicates the same prejudice occurs in the US.
Tristan, Chatham

It is not a coincidence that the English regularly stereotype the Irish and Scottish as ginger haired. Russ Abbot made his name with this type of "humour". Of course it's as bad as racism - and it often is racism.
Dougie, London, UK

I'm 20 now and since school I have only been subjected to red-hair-based abuse from misbehaving children and unintelligent idiots who can't think of any wittier or relevant insults. It strikes a nerve because of the hard time I had as a ginger child but isn't even in the same league as racism. Children will always find something to be cruel to each other over and only a few unfortunate adults don't grow out of it.
Mike Assenti, Bristol, England

That joke at the top of the article is surely too rubbish to be offensive.
Gareth, Frome

Having survived the occasional hair colour related taunting of the school play ground and mandatory nicknaming while in the army, I now celebrate the colour of my hair. We, The Ginger, should rebuke any torments from those unfortunate to suffer the insecurities of the mousey masses, and explain to them that it is only their inability to articulate a more inteligent banter that leads them to choose pick on the one feature of us that makes us superior to them. We should pity those who think it is right to try to bully us, because they will more than likely be bald before us.
David Cunningham, Bognor Regis

My gorgeous husband has ginger hair and I tell him 'Once you've done ginger you never go back'. I have loads of affectionate names for him such as 'my little ginger freak of nature', 'ginge' and 'ginog'. Unfortunately, my three year old daughter picked up on the first one and now regularly shouts 'ginger freak' at my husband! It is all done in our house with love and affection and my husband has long since accepted his hair colour and is proud of it. He reckons that ginger people are the superior race and he'd be absolutely right. Up those gingas!
Julie, Gateshead

I've got red curly hair, and grew up at the time "Annie" was out at the pictures - thanks to all the teasing at school, I still hate that film! Recently a beggar who I refused to give money to called me an "F****** ginger b****. In my experience red hair makes you an easy target for insults, bullies and hurtful remarks.
Joanne Bentley, Manchester

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