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OPINION: A certain event today has got me reflecting on my roots, by which I mean, the ones on my head. November 20 is Kick A Ginger Day, an internet-invented occasion created so a few bullies can indulge in a little harassing and a number of kids that I can wholeheartedly relate to will wish they had less conspicuous follicles.
Where does gingerism (aka, the dislike of redheads) come from? Some have speculated that it was born from an English dislike of the Irish and the Scots. Others have referenced suspected associations with vampires and werewolves, which, quite frankly, would be awesome if true. But it's probably rather baser than that.
Humans seem inclined to pick on those who are different, and bullying is often reserved for minorities. At just 1-2 per cent of the population, with hair that demands attention like a flaming beacon, is it any wonder that we're obvious jokes? Oftentimes, those who wouldn't dream of outwardly expressing hostility towards other groups feel totally cool about dissing those with a recessive gene on chromosome 16. And while joking about redheads is definitely not racism, as Mick Hucknall claimed, and to suggest so a la Hucknall is offensive to those genuinely experiencing systemic and institutional discrimination, it's not always fun and games either.
For me, teasing was a daily occurrence. My primary school was a place where difference wasn't really tolerated, set in a white bread, blue-ribbon suburb of Melbourne. The taunts were pretty yawn-worthy, really - carrot-top was a common one - but at seven years old, the lack of originality on the part of my tormenters wasn't what I was focusing on. One day, pinning class projects on a notice board, a boy turned to me and said matter-of-factly that I would never be good looking, because redheads were always ugly. Another student agreed, but wondered, 'what about Nicole Kidman?'
'Yeah, but she's Nicole Kidman,' the first kid blithely replied. Instead of questioning this child's dubious grasp of logic, I sadly accepted that what he said was true. My (non-red-headed) parents assured me that 'when you're a teenager, you'll want to look different from everybody else!', but I responded to their words with incredulous scorn, and spent many a night staring at the cover of a Baby-Sitters Little Sister book (#19, Karen's Goodbye, in case you're interested), wishing I looked like the blonde girl depicted on it instead.
And then there was the occasion of the school's 140th anniversary. I was 11. The school had hired a man to come in and teach us like it was 1855 for the day. We all dressed in an old-timey fashion and had to use a quill and ink in class. The rented-teacher patrolled the aisles, eyes peeled for anachronisms that he could call kids out on. Spotting a quill grasped in my left hand, he was quick. 'Write with your right hand or you'll get the strap,' he barked. And then, I guess because my left-handedness wasn't bad enough: 'And you've got red hair and freckles! You're ugly!' If being told you're unattractive by your peers is tough, it's about 1000 times worse when it's a figure of authority doing so in front of them, even if it is just some random dude who has a strange career that involves masquerading as a 19th century teacher.
At high school, the insults took a turn for the MA15+. Suffice to say, boys in my year seven class were rather fixated on whether the carpet matched the drapes. I sought solace in my crimson-haired brethren, in characters like Anne of Green Gables and the entire Weasley family. If Christina Hendricks had come along a little earlier, she would have been a huge asset.
Then, maybe during my early 20s, the affronts suddenly turned to adulation, and everyone expected me to do an about-face as quickly as they had. Celebrities were dying their hair, and friends wistfully spoke about following suit. Strange guys on trains started approaching me with weird pick-up lines that always seemed to start with, 'you know how there's two kinds of redheads?' Alas, the damage had already been done, and even though I've grown to love my hair, there will forever be a part of me that's a sensitive ginger kid, no matter how many people say they'd kill for my colour.
On Kick a Ginger Day, I find myself musing on those formative years with sorrow. Not for myself, although I've often wished I could travel back in time and tell childhood me that my parents were right, and one day I will appreciate being different. The sadness is more reserved for the people who find glee or solidarity in tormenting others who don't fit into a narrow, arbitrary mold of 'acceptable'.
Advocates of kicking gingers, whether physically or verbally, reel out the 'it's a joke!' line, and remind those with copper-coloured tresses that it was derived of a South Park episode which famously postulated that gingers don't have souls. But what's actually funny is that the real joke has been misunderstood. Matt Parker and Trey Stone intended 'Ginger Kids' as an ironic piece, a comment on the absurdity of prejudice akin to Jane Elliott's infamous "blue eyed/brown eyed" experiment ('ginger' being an anagram for a vile racial slur). Just as Jonah Takalua's bullying was the butt of the joke when he punked 'a ranga', but amused viewers latched onto the wrong end of the stick and lo, a new insult was born.
Look, I get it. We're easy prey: our hair makes us easy to spot, and our lack of tannable skin is pretty comical. We probably wouldn't last five seconds in the wild. But please don't fall into the tired trap of kicking a ginger today. It's been done. And remember; only a ginger can call another ginger ginger.
- Daily Life
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