Monday 18 June 2018

Stop right there! Don't call me ginger

As the redhead convention kicks off, flame-haired writer Jacky Colliss Harvey explains why she's reclaiming the 'G' word

Jacky Harvey Collis
Jacky Harvey Collis

What's in a word? In the case of ginger, a little Latin, a bit of horse-trading, some blood-spattered sawdust, a seasoning of 19th-century fiction; and a lot of being told, those of us in the fellowship of the MC1R, that there's no such thing as gingerism, and even if there is, it has nothing to do with any of those other-isms out there. You know, the big, important grown-up ones: chauvinism, anti-Semitism, racism; those.

The spice, ginger (from the Latin, Zingiber officinale, for "without a soul") was first exported to Europe via India in the First Century AD. It seems almost unbelievable that it took another 18 centuries before anyone thought of applying the spice to the hair, as it were, but it did. We're in the early 19th century before the first mention of it in reference to hair or whiskers.

Before then, it had been the term for a fast, showy horse, a high-stepper (1805); before that (1785), you'd have heard it round the pit of a cockfight, to describe red-feathered cockerels. By 1839, however, in William Harrison Ainsworth's novel Jack Sheppard, we have a "ginger-hackled Jew" - a distasteful echo of the red-haired Judas of so many medieval paintings, and intriguing evidence of red hair's recessive predisposition to pop up in any population isolated culturally or geographically.

Way back in 1600, presumably influenced by ginger's heat on the tongue, it was already being sounded with a note of caution: "This man is verie ginger & dangerous of himself". It meant spirited, mettlesome, plucky; it meant don't mess.

But you can be pretty sure no one ever snuck up behind the aged Obadiah Walker, who listed "the vilifying of red-hair'd men" in his Vulgar Errours of 1659, and shouted "Ginger lover!" at him. No, they'd have shouted "Carrots!" (a popular synonym for red hair first used in the 17th century).

Ginger. If I or any of my genetic kith and kin make use of it, it's cool (my book RED: A Natural History of the Redhead has a Facebook fan who signs off her postings "Ginger Minge"). It's one of those words.

Two others immediately come to mind, one begins with 'q', the other 'n'; both now the property of the groups they were originally used to denigrate.

"Only a ginger," as the Australian comedian Tim Minchin informs us mournfully in his song Prejudice, "can call another ginger ginger." Damn right.

"Ranga" is another - coined in the late 1990s in Australia as a schoolyard witticism, it was reclaimed in 2009, in a blinding bit of reverse discrimination, by Joel Cohen for his Oz-based 'Red And Nearly Ginger Association'.

But is gingerism racism? Us redheads, we've certainly learned from those who had the now-unthinkable "q" or "n" words thrown at them, all those unenlightened years ago, and reverse discrimination is working for us just as it did for them.

We have redhead festivals: the Irish Redhead Convention takes over Crosshaven this weekend, and Redhead Day UK explodes in London on September 12; before that the ginger daddy of them all, the original Redhead Days, will be filling the streets of Breda in Holland with the rubiferous from September 6-8.

We have websites. We're a community, we have presence. (And if you're reading this, Apple Inc, you've got our petition, and we're still here, and we still want our ginger emojis.)

Here's an historical mash-up to ponder. One of the biggest and best of those websites is Ginger With Attitude, founded in 2012, and named in homage to the rap collective NWA.

When the first Irish emigrants reached the New World, they were greeted with epithets such as "blacks turned inside out" - only, of course, the word used wasn't "black". Fade to the present day (be warned, there are asterisks in what follows), and here's a joke, or at least I found it so described, taken last week from the internet. Q: What do you get if you re-arrange the letters of the word n*****? A: Yeah, makes you feel sorry for them, doesn't it?

And what are we to make of the incident recorded by Manchester police, where a driver, a grown man, pulled over and wound down his window just to call an eight-year-old child a "f**king little ginger bitch"? It's hateful, yes - but is it a hate crime? If the driver, whoever the vile, misbegotten, pea-brained troll might be, had called the girl a "f**king little black bitch", we'd know what we were dealing with. But what is this?

RED launched in the States this summer, and the difference in attitudes over there toward gingerness and gingerism is fascinating, and has, I think, much to do with the Celtic diaspora and the way that what was a signifier of 'other' in England became, as soon as it crossed the Atlantic, a bold visual claim to a history and a cultural heritage. At a time when America is asking itself the most difficult questions about race, many people I met were at first nonplussed at the notion of a conversation about discrimination not based on skin-colour. I was told there is no such thing as prejudice against gingers in America (and the day I am told that by a redhead, I may even start to believe it), and I had a finger wagged at me for being mean to that nice Taylor Swift over her "I would do a ginger" comment.

But the point, surely, is this: all these behaviours - bullying, discrimination, stereotyping and prejudice - are all connected, and all in a line, from name-calling in the schoolyard to the worst and most horrible excesses of racism and persecution. And as a redhead I'm standing up against them all. Yes, my skin is white. But my hair is ginger - and that word belongs to me.

The sixth annual Irish Redhead Convention takes place in Crosshaven, Cork, today, tomorrow and Sunday. The convention will raise money for Irish Cancer Society through their 'Sun Smart' campaign for melanoma and skin cancer. See

Irish Independent

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