The forgotten victims: should redheads be protected by law?

10 March 2019

Why do redheads face so much discrimination?

Redheads are rare.

Both parents of a red-haired child must be carriers of the mutated MC1R gene. This means that less than 2% of the world’s population have red hair, making it the rarest hair colour on Earth.  Britain has the largest population of redheads in the world (due to the high percentage of redheads in Scotland and Ireland), but it has one of the biggest discrimination problems when it comes to its red-headed folk.

Redheads face a variety of insults and bullying because of their hair colour.

Scotland has the most red-heads in the world-2

Infographic: Emma Lawson

These are only some of the names that redheads have been labelled with over the years and these aren’t even the worst ones. Name calling occurs on a daily basis and it’s not surprising as redheads have long been identified as easy targets for bullies due to the stigma of having red hair. Researchers at the University of Cork said that the bullying of “gingers” is “one of the last socially accepted forms of prejudice against people for a trait they were born with.”

Cat Paterson, from Glasgow, stated that she was treated differently because of her hair colour:

“Both Primary and Secondary was particularly difficult and my hair colour attracted a lot of negative attention, particularly from girls… As a child, consistent and relentless bullying took its toll on my confidence and I was very anxious and shy as a child as a result. I experienced fairly serious bullying back in the late 70s and 80s and had to call in the police at that time. It was not a pleasant time and I believe that the lack of confidence carried into early adulthood as a result.”

Cat Paterson. Photograph: Cat Paterson   

Ashley Atkin. Photograph: Ashley Atkin

With Scotland having the largest percentage of redheads it’s no surprise that many of them have faced bullying and discrimination, particularly during their school years. Laura Abraham, a redheaded Scot, can attest to this. “Mostly when I was younger as I was picked on…I used to be so upset as a kid.” The bullying stretches far beyond just the playgrounds of Scotland though. It’s so widespread that even Prince Harry confessed to be being called names because of his hair colour.

Studies have found that children who are bullied are more likely to suffer from self-esteem issues as well as depression. Which is what happened to Helena Farrell. The suicide of the 15-year old hit the headlines in 2013 when the teenager killed herself after being bullied all her life because of her “ginger hair”. Although her parents campaigned for discrimination against hair colour to become a hate crime, there has been no change to the law.

Ashley Atkin, another redhead, said of the bullying she received because of her hair: “In high school it would make me feel ugly and like a freak.”

A spokesperson from anti-bullying charity Kidscape stated: “While all children can experience bullying, some children are more vulnerable to being targeted. Children tend to target any perceived difference such as hair colour, having a disability, being in a minority ethnic group or being on free school meals. It’s important to challenge this behaviour from an early age and instill kids with a sense that we are all different and that’s all right. Bullying can have a knock-on effect on a child’s self esteem, so if a child is being bullied for any reason, reassure them that it’s not their fault, and encourage a sense of confidence in them.”

The american television show, South Park, has been guilty of spreading “ginger” prejudice with “Kick a Ginger Day” becoming a dreaded yearly occurrence for school students after appearing in one of their episodes.  

Although for some redheads the bullying ends after they leave school, it can continue well into adulthood. Discrimination against redheads is so mainstream that it has even been endorsed by Carlton & United Breweries, an Australian beer company, who in 2018 had to remove their advertisement because it encouraged discrimination against redheads.

There are several online website forums where redheads have shared their stories and experiences from bullying to workplace discrimination. Particularly for men, with 60% facing discrimination for their hair colour. As a result there have been many cases where men have dyed their hair to avoid discrimination.

Alex-Kosuth, a 23-year old sales assistant from Chester was attacked outside a pizza shop in Birmingham after a night out with his partner. He was punched in the face and the blow left him with a broken jaw. He had to endure a long period of recovery, all because of his “ginger” hair.

Photograph: Allen Taylor

Even as an adult, Cat Paterson has faced hurtful comments about her hair: “I’ve had adults said openly to my face, your hair colour is lovely but I hope I never have a redheaded baby! The hurtful thing is they don’t even realise how unacceptable saying that is. Of course we all have preferences, biases and opinions, some should be held internally and not shared.”

It has been speculated that the UK is one of the worst places for hair discrimination. Redheads tend to be more widely celebrated in countries such as the US and Australia, where they are less likely to experience any bullying or discrimination.

Ashley Aitkin stated: “Strangely I don’t think redheads in Australia and the USA face the same level of abuse. I think it’s a British problem despite Scotland in particular having the highest percentage of redheads worldwide.”

Currently there is no UK Law that prevents the bullying and discrimination of redheads, although there have been campaigns for redheads to be protected against discrimination and calls for it to be classified as a hate crime to bully someone for having red hair.

Although redheads face discrimination, they are embracing their red hair and are often very proud of it. Cat Paterson set up her own website Straight Talking Ginger.

“I LOVE my hair. The people who name called are the same people who now comment on how beautiful my hair is and ask the hairdresser to dye it that colour.”

Laura Abraham agreed with this for her own hair “Yes. Love it.”

There are several events planned to celebrate redheads around the world, such as Ginger Pride in Edinburgh, Redhead Day UK, Gingerfest in the Idaho and Red Love Festival in France.

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