The Education of a Reluctant Ginger

Self Portrait 1887. Vincent Van Gogh, Virtuoso Ginger.

I’ll never forget what a supreme jerk I was to redheads during high school. I still think about it today. Not every day mind you. But more than I’d like to admit.

Let me clarify. I never went out of my way to occasion grief toward any redheaded person. But if a ginger rubbed me the wrong way, I was quick to evoke their stupid red hair for purposes of expediency. In the nineties, admonishing someone for being a ginger was the ultimate argument winner. And admonish them I did, heaping scorn on redheads with the carefree zeal of a gambler playing with house money. I’m ashamed in hindsight, but it’s hard to feel bad about what I thought was a victimless crime.

Little did I know that the chickens would come home to roost. Nor that they would do so on my face.

I didn’t realize I was a redhead till I turned 27 or so. Growing up on the sun-drenched coastline of Western Australia, one’s hair gets a year round dose of saltwater and vitamin D so no one grokked to even a germ of my gingervitis. I was 25 before I got labeled “strawberry blonde” for the first time. Then when my beard came in as a bright corduroy of ochre and burnt orange, my jig was up. This was not like choosing a new religion — religions you can leave. I had been conscripted to a group I was constitutionally incapable of exiting.

Sure I was at the muted end of the ginger spectrum, but a ginger nonetheless. But having spent my formative years as a non-ginger has afforded me a unique neutrality in assessing the plight of gingers, I’m one of them, but I’m not.

At roughly 0.6% of the world’s population, redheads are targets of more cultural vitriol than logic would dictate. From the schoolyard to the workplace, ribbing of reds remains mainstream. This is pretty unusual when you think about it. From the time we can walk, we’re taught not to tease others for things they have no control over. Redheads seemed to have slipped through the cracks for some reason. Coppertops are the last group that remain fair game.

But why? Consider the well-worn idiom, a “red-headed stepchild.” Take the word stepchild — a phrase in and of itself pretty benign. Throw in red hair, and this child is now infinitely less appealing. I fail to see how the addition of a ginger mop makes the child any more burdensome. But it does.

The genesis of ginger bashing has been debated over time and remains unclear. Some people have pegged it as an English invention tied to anti-Irish sentiment. The ancient Greeks allegedly believed redheads would turn into vampires after they died. The Egyptians buried coppertops alive as sacrifices to the god Osiris. More recent examples of “ginger-stitions” include Cartman positing that redheads are born without souls. In 2013, kids at a Yorkshire school orchestrated a “Kick A Ginger” day. It’s hard to imagine consistent harassment of any other group that leaves society as collectively nonplussed.

The problem is that redheads as a cohort are still something of a cultural curiosity. Well-meaning defenders of reds often recycle hackneyed clichés about their “doability,” thinking that citing cases of redheaded attractiveness somehow validates their right to exist. But unfortunately for every Michael Fassbender or Emma Stone, there’s 10 Carrot Tops or Kathy Griffins, so this argument doesn’t hold much weight.

No, what we need is a societal awakening around contributions redheads have made to humanity. With red the quickest of the hair colors to turn gray, appreciation of gingers often gets shortchanged. I did not know for instance, that Cleopatra was a ginger. When George Washington crossed the Delaware, he had auburn curls poking out from under his tricorne. Winston Churchill was a well-known red. The greatest of American humorists, Mark Twain was a proud ginger. Genghis Khan was a prolific firecrotch, notoriously sowing his auburn oats across Eurasia. And don’t forget poor old Vincent Van Gogh. The prevailing worldview is that Vince was a morbid soul, forever depressed that his genius wasn’t being recognized. But my feeling is that he was driven cut to his ear off when his friends refused to stop calling him “Fanta Pants.”

Boris Becker, Ginger Turncoat.

Part of the problem is that redheads are often their own worst enemies. They seem to have no qualms about diluting their already small gene pool. Take Boris Becker for example. When he won Wimbledon as a fresh faced 17-year old, he sported a glorious shock of terracotta locks. By the late nineties he’d gotten hold of some peroxide and morphed into some chubby Bavarian himbo. It’s this type of egregious betrayal by its own kind that gives expectant ginger parents chills. Who wants to spawn a redhead when redheads themselves are so keen to mask their own gingerdom? Until redheads warmly embrace their own identity, their acceptance in the mainstream will remain elusive.

So let me address all the gingers. I implore you to lean in. Embrace the scarlet hue. Those who thought the genetic roulette wheel of life had left them on the downside of misfortune, it’s quite the opposite. You are special. And not in some meaningless self-helpy way of being special. You are special in the way the snow leopard is special — because you are endangered.

OK not quite. The science around ginger extinction is pretty questionable, but the takeaway should not be. Like many endangered species, redheads are under appreciated, beautiful and rare. Know it. Love it. Embrace it.

And stop taking shit from clowns like my teenage self. Rest assured my crimson brothers and sisters, they only hate us cos they ain’t us.

Larrikin Sandgroper, @Fremantle_FC tragic, Global Strategy Consultant, failed clarinetist, banjo novice, doting dad.

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