Should the Law Protect Redheads From Prejudice?

Edinburgh Ginger Pride Walk 2013. (Image: The Guardian)

When we think of redheads, we probably think of certain celebrities: Amy Adams, Prince Harry, and Ed Sheeran – to name a few. However, this does not mean that redheads are common.

As we often hear, less than 2% of people in the world have red hair, with both parents of a child with red hair needing to be carriers of the mutated MC1R gene. In fact, ‘ScotlandsDNA’ project has reported that only around 0.6% of the world has red hair.

As with many unique features and characteristics, there is often a lot of stigma attached to being a redhead (sometimes referred to as ‘gingerism’). As reporter Nelson Jones states, “virtually every ginger-haired child will have experienced some degree of name-calling at school.” Here, Jones is referring primarily to Britain, which holds the largest percentage of redheads in the world.

While some state that such prejudice is due to red hair simply being uncommon, it has been claimed that it stems from the anti-Irish sentiment remaining from the 1600s when the Irish were thought as being sub-human. Thus, by this logic, ‘gingerism’ is a form of xenophobia and is related to centuries-old imperialism. 

‘Gingerism’ is “one of the last socially accepted forms of prejudice against people for a trait they were born with.” 

Kevin O’Regan, Psychology graduate of the University of Cork

This prejudice is not exclusive to Britain, with the United States also negatively stereotyping the Irish as late as the 1800s.  The Irish population fell outside the American ideal of the White Anglo Saxon norm, therefore leading to ridicule and social exclusion.  

Whether or not this ‘gingerism’ stems from anti-Irish sentiment or not, redheads do seem to suffer abuse today. Following from Psychology graduate Kevin O’Regan at the University of Cork, this is perhaps due to the idea that ‘gingerism’ is “one of the last socially accepted forms of prejudice against people for a trait they were born with.” 

There are significant examples of the bigotry that red-haired people suffer. Not only is it a typical trope in popular culture, with redheads portrayed to be stubborn, angry and untrustworthy – South Park even aired an anti-ginger episode which included the concept of ‘Kick a Ginger Day’ – but there have been examples of harm due to an aversion to red hair.

For instance, the parents of Helena Farrell, a fifteen-year-old girl from Ireland who killed herself in 2013, attributed her daughter’s death to be, in part, from the bullying she faced by her school peers due to her red hair. Similarly, former equalities minister Harriet Harman was forced to apologise after calling MP Danny Alexander a “ginger rodent”, declaring that she was unaware of the offence that this would cause.

Abuse of this kind is much more common in Britain, perhaps due to the number of people with red hair. A clip from the Graham Norton Show in 2015 highlights this, in which red-haired Jessica Chastain describes having never been subjected to any name-calling or embarrassment due to her hair until she landed in Britain and was taunted at an airport. Although discussed jokingly on a chat-show, this stands to posit that red-hair is seen as something to be victimised by in Britain.

Ed Sheeran and Prince Harry, two red-haired celebrities who remain very popular with the British public. (Image: Time Magazine)

Sometimes this abuse has gone further into examples of physical assault and threat to life by others. For instance, in 2013 a man was attacked in Birmingham while celebrating his 23rd birthday, leaving his jaw broken in two places. The reason for the attack was his ginger hair. Additionally, in 2007, a family from Newcastle claimed that they were forced to leave their town after being targeted by a group over their ginger hair.

For this reason, it has been said by some, including the parents of Helena Farrell, that red hair should be added to the protected characteristics of the 2010 Equality Act. Thus, protecting ginger hair by law.

The Equality Act of 2010 is said to protect certain characteristics and groups from “discrimination, harassment and victimization.” Currently, under the Equality Act of 2010, there are nine protected characteristics which include disability, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation. 

Those who argue that ginger-hair should be added could make their claim on the basis that redheads are harassed and victimised, hence justifying the need for a tenth protected characteristic.

Nonetheless, little has been done about this. A UK petition, entitled “add red hair colour to the protected characteristics of the Equality Act”, ran for six months and closed on the 7th of June 2018. However, this petition was only able to generate 31 signatures, failing in establishing awareness or getting close to the 100,000 signatures needed for consideration for a debate in Parliament.

This perhaps relates to the fact that the view that red hair should be a protected characteristic, and that ‘gingerism’ is on par with other forms of prejudice, is not held ubiquitously.

Summarising this view, Ally Fogg stated in his 2013 Guardian article that while gingerism is real, “not all prejudices are equal to one another.” Here, Fogg claims that gingers do not suffer from similar oppressive issues to those groups that are part of the Equality Act.

For instance, a ginger himself, Fogg states that he has never been subject to a ‘random’ stop and search, never been denied a job or lease on a flat (to his knowledge) on this basis. Politicians do not want to see him deported or executed in the way that some do with those who are BAME or part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Contra this, between April 2018 and March 2019 in the UK, there were 4 stops for every 1,000 white persons, compared with 38 for every 1,000 black persons. Additionally, homosexuality is still illegal in 35% of UN member states.

Thus, while some may concede that gingers are a target for harassment in a similar vein to other minorities, it would be wrong to say that they face the same oppression that other minorities do. 

We can claim that gingerism should stop, as any prejudice and related harm is wrong, but that equating it with other forms of oppression (and having it protected in law as a protected characteristic, for example) does more damage than good.