Gingerism – the acceptable face of racism?

Princess Merida, Brave, 2012 | Image: Disney

Recently in my workplace I overheard some jokey chat about ‘gingers’. It wasn’t directed at a particular person but I felt uneasy, as I always do when this casual prejudice happens. It felt like a form of racism.

Prejudice against red-haired people, known as gingerism, apparently exists only in England. It’s always framed as jokey banter and is often heard in the workplace or the pub.

If anyone objects, they’re likely to be chided: ‘It’s just a bit of fun. Can’t you take a joke?’ But is it a harmless joke? Or is it actually racism seeking an ‘acceptable’ form?

In the 1950s and 60s, racist comments were commonplace in the workplace and the pub, but now they’re unacceptable in public. Perhaps ‘harmless’ jokes about red-haired people or about the Welsh, (another similarly mocked group) constitute a new outlet for the redundant but dangerous and destructive anti-stranger instinct upon which racism is apparently built.

A UK Guardian article on the subject downplayed the idea of gingerism as racism, pointing out that people with red hair clearly don’t suffer the same devastating personal and institutional discrimination as people with black or brown skin.

However, the Guardian article suggested an interesting explanation for gingerism: English anti-Celtism, and – more specifically – anti-Irish feeling.

Many Irish people have red hair. Since Cromwell’s brutal colonisation of ireland, there’s been a tendency for the English to disdain the Irish. (Hence Irish ‘jokes’.)

In the 1950s, London boarding-house signs supposedly said, ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish‘. This seems to be apocryphal, but it illustrates a real prejudice.

English red-haired people bravely (Brave!) try to reappropriate the word ‘ginger’ – as African Americans have reappropriated the N-word. But the bullying ‘jokes’ continue regardless.


Red-haired Neanderthals

Neanderthal humans had red hair. Having lived in Europe for over 100,000 years, they were apparently wiped out 35,000 years ago by immigrating early modern humans. (Early modern humans emigrated everywhere – they’re the ancestors of all humans.)

Perhaps ‘jokey’ bullying of red-haired people and colonialist anti-Irish sentiments are echoes of that ancient hostility.

(As well as killing Neanderthals, early humans interbred with them. Most Europeans and Asians have 1-4% Neanderthal DNA. However, red hair in modern humans isn’t inherited from Neanderthals – apparently it’s a different gene.)


This post is an excerpt from my longform post Colour me racist, blame my genes – racism explained as a redundant instinct

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