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UK vs Germany: experiences of being “ginger”

Louise Osborne & Gianna GrünNovember 20, 2014

When the Life Links team sat down to discuss #dealwithme, onliners Gianna and Lou struck on the topic of ‘gingerism’. Both have gorgeous red hair - but had very different experiences of it when they were growing up.

Red Hair Day in Breda (Photo: EPA/BAS CZERWINSKI)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Lou’s story: being a redhead in the UK

Growing up “ginger” in the UK is hard - kids are bullied and adults fear attack.

Long red hair, freckled cheeks and fair skin - as a young girl at school, I was a target for bullies. “Ginger”, “Ginger minger”, “Duracell” - think the battery with the orange top and black body - and “carrot top” were just some of the names I was called while I was growing up.

And away from the playground there were other comments. “Oi, are your pubes ginger, too?” someone once yelled at me, referring to parts of my body I wouldn’t even discuss with my closest friends, let alone a teenage boy surrounded by a group of his friends, who all sniggered as they crowded outside my local shop.

Feeling humiliated, I blushed bright red - another trait that comes with being a red head - and walked away, praying they wouldn’t yell at me again.

As well as the names and comments, for me, there was also the more physical abuse. On the bus, I heard a couple of boys sniggering behind me before they pulled my hair and hit the back of my head. A shy, young teenager at the time, I quickly got up and jumped off the bus at the next stop, eager to get away.

During my time at school, I begged my mum to let me dye my hair. “But it’s such a beautiful color,” she and my hairdresser would say together, “I’d love to have red hair.”

Louise Osborne (Photo: Louise Osborne)
Louise OsborneImage: privat

As I reached adulthood, the insults I received for my red hair largely stopped. I do still get the odd drunken remark, but now, years on, I have learned to appreciate my unique hair color - and even like it.

Abuse of redheads

I realise that, compared to others, I was pretty lucky to only receive the comments I did when I was younger.

In the UK, the word “ginger” has taken on an almost accusatory tone, like you’ve committed an offence by being #link:http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24331615:one of the estimated 10% of the nation’s population# daring to have ginger hair.

Many children or teenagers suffer to the point of #link:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/7623602/Schoolgirl-withdrawn-from-school-over-ginger-bullying.html:having to change schools# due to bullying or even worse, #link:http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/443002/Popular-teenager-killed-himself-after-being-bullied-about-his-ginger-hair-inquest-hears:killing themselves# as a result of the harassment.

Even adults have been physically attacked for their hair color. In 2012, a man was #link:http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/news/9507952.Beaten_up_for_having_ginger_hair/:beaten up# after two men took offence at his ginger hair and last year, a 23-year-old suffered a shattered jaw after #link:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9787027/Attacked-for-having-ginger-hair.html:being set upon# outside a pizza takeaway for the same reason.

“Gingerism”: a hate crime?

The bullying of redheads has led to some calling for “gingerism” to be made a hate crime. The UK government #link:https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/reducing-and-preventing-crime--2/supporting-pages/hate-crime:defines the term# as a criminal offence “motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a personal characteristic” including disability, gender identity, race, religion or sexual orientation

#link:http://www.newstatesman.com/nelson-jones/2013/01/should-ginger-bashing-be-considered-hate-crime:Some argue# that “prejudice is prejudice” regardless of the characteristic that leads to such reaction, #link:http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/15/gingerism-prejudice-bullying:but others say# that being a redhead cannot be seen in the same way as the oppression and prejudice levelled at other groups.

I’m torn. While I would struggle to put the prejudice of redheads at the same level as that of race or disability, where discrimination can extend to not being able to get a job, or being racially profiled because of your skin color, it is clear that the name calling and abuse often goes too far to be written off as simple child’s play.

#link:http://www.dw.de/uk-vs-germany-experiences-of-being-ginger/a-18070149-2:Next Page#: read about Gianna’s experience of being a redhead in Germany...

Gianna’s story: being a redhead in Germany

It’s a breeze being “ginger” in Germany.

In Germany - where #link:http://bit.ly/14zJVaZ:3 to 5 percent of people are "gingers"# - I've never experienced intolerance or abuse because of my red hair. The worst thing I was called in school was "matchstick".

Other names I was called I found rather encouraging - like Pumuckl, a famous animated cartoon goblin, who was quick-witted, nosey and even had invisibility powers. Or Pippi Longstocking, known to be the strongest girl on earth.

At the hairdresser’s, women of any age would drop in and ask for "the same hair color as the girl over there", pointing at me. The hairdresser had to disappoint them by explaining this color was not dyed but natural.

Gianna Grün (Photo: Gianna Grün)
Gianna GrünImage: privat

Appreciation for my red hair didn't stop there: when I visited a castle in Ireland as a university student, I walked past a group of school children. One girl poked her friend and whispered in awe: "Look! There is a carrot lady!" Having never been called "lady" before, I felt like a princess.

Others didn't do as well with their comments as that schoolgirl. Some guy tried to flirt with me saying that I looked quite beautiful despite the fact that I had red hair. The conversation ended there.

I also remember talking to a fellow journalist who told me that redheads had #link:http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/10/121012-neanderthals-science-paabo-dna-sex-breeding-humans/:similar genes as Neanderthal hominids#. As a molecular biologist, that was rather fascinating. With my DNA, I'm a walking piece of history!

As you can see, I feel rather blessed with my red hair and freckles. With that I'm not alone. There are hardly any reports of “ginger abuse” in Germany - unlike in the UK. Maybe we’re influenced by our neighbours, the Dutch, who even have #link:http://www.roodharigen.nl/:a festival# celebrating what is clearly the best hair color in the world.

Recently a video by Buzzfeed on other cool things about redheads went viral. When I saw it on Lou's Facebook wall, I shared it as well, but now I wonder: do we really need videos promoting the acceptance and appreciation of such an irrelevant and, at the same time, manipulable trait as hair color?