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10 January 2013

Should ginger-bashing be considered a hate crime?

Being ginger-haired, you're not considered fully human.

By Nelson Jones

Last February, Alex Kosuth–Phillips was subjected to a vicious and unprovoked attack outside a pizza shop in Birmingham, where he had been out celebrating his 23rd birthday.  His jaw was broken in two places and he had two metal plates inserted into his face.  For three months he was drinking with a straw.  The culprits apparently took exception to his ginger hair.  The story is in the news now because earlier this week, police released CCTV footage of the incident in an attempt to catch the assailants, who remain at large.

Also in February last year, two men were convicted at Southampton Crown Court of a “frenzied and sustained” assault on a red-haired man in New Milton, Hampshire.  The attack, which was again quite unprovoked, began with “gingerist” insults hurled at the victim, James Prior, from a car.  In another case ten years ago, a young man was stabbed in a West Yorkshire wine bar “after an argument over his ginger hair.”   Redheads have also been the target of sustained harassment.  In 2007, for example, the Chapman family  of Newcastle hit the headlines after suffering “years of taunts, smashed windows and violence” and being forced to flee several homes.

Such attacks would meet most natural definitions of a hate crime.  Redheads are a minority, indeed a very visible minority, who are in no way responsible for the fact that some other people display an irrational aversion to their (our) hair colour.  Like members other groups, such as ethnic or religious minorities, gingers make a convenient target for the innate human desire to single out and ridicule people who are “different”.  In this particular case, the prejudice is both widespread and, apparently, deep seated.  It’s said to be especially prevalent in Britain, perhaps because the red-hair gene itself is commoner here. 

The Penguin Guide to Superstitions identifes a “general prejudice… that red-haired people are devious, cruel, lascivious, unlucky and generally untrustworthy”.  But it’s no quaint folkloric survival.  Virtually every ginger-haired child will have experienced some degree of name-calling at school. For some it continues into adult life.  I had the double whammy of ginger hair and glasses.  I can’t claim to have experienced serious bullying (except, astonishing as it now seems, from one of the teachers).  But the taunts were always there and even when harmlessly meant, coming from friends, they had the power to wound.  The message was unspoken but unmistakable: being ginger-haired, you’re not one of us, not quite normal, not fully human.

Sometimes it rises to the level of serious bullying.  In 2010 the Mirror told the story of a twelve year old girl, Nicole Nagington who was forced to leave her school after receiving repeated Facebook death-threats from her classmates and being physically assaulted. After she died her hair blonde, one of the bullies taunted her with the words “You’re still a ginger bitch.  All gingers should die.” 

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Anti-ginger bullying may be a particular problem in schools, but few schools make it a priority, guided by the law and codes of practice to concentrate their efforts on tackling racism, homophobia and disability prejudice.  Indeed, unlike hatred based on race or sexuality, however, there is no legal recognition that anti-ginger prejudice exists.  Hair colour doesn’t feature among the list of “protected characteristics” in the 2010 Equality Act.  The law attaches no special opprobrium to words that incite anti-ginger hatred, as it does to the stirring up of religious hatred or homophobia.  The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines restrict to category “hate crime” to those “motivated by hostility towards someone based on their disability, race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.” Such crimes attract more severe penalties than “ordinary” assaults, even though the hatred involved may be no less real, random or irrational and the injuries hurt just the same. 

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Anti-ginger prejudice may seem trivial to those who have never experienced it.  Even Harriet Harman, whose legislative monument was the 2010 Equality Act, saw fit to taunt the Lib Dem cabinet minister Danny Alexander as a “ginger rodent”.  She later apologised, but it’s striking that she did not realised beforehand that her remarks were likely to be offensive.  It betrays a common blind-spot.  Or take Barabara Ellen in the Guardian: “One doesn’t want to get into the idea of ginger-whingers, but could it be that some red-haired people spend their lives looking for offence, where there is none?”  A generation or two ago, gay people and members of ethnic minorities who objected to insulting language and offensive banter were greeted by exactly the same accusations of oversensitivity, humour-failure and wallowing in victimhood.  And, indeed, many targets of such banter accepted it without complaint.  It was only when others organised and got angry that wider society noticed the problem.  Today we may well ask why, if “spaz” and “Paki” are unacceptable, why should “carrot-top” or “ginger bastard” be allowed? 

Lest I be accused of special pleading, it’s not just the ginger-haired who become the victims of bullying, belittling humour or random acts of violence based on personal characteristics in which the law takes no interest.  20 year old Sophie Lancaster was murdered in 2007 by a gang who singled out her and her boyfriend for being Goths, in what a judge later described as a “hate crime” – although he had no legal justification for using the term.  People have lost jobs as social workers or teachers when it became known that they visited fetish clubs.  Prejudice against overweight people, which can cause seriously psychological harm, is surreptitiously encouraged by public health campaigns against obesity: they are made to feel like unattractive failures and, worse, a potential drain on NHS resources.  Given the current volume rhetoric around “welfare scroungers”, cranked up by politicians and press alike, I fear that is only a matter of time before an unemployed person is the subject of a violent assault provoked solely by their inability to get a job.

The real point is that hatred doesn’t always fit neatly into one of the little boxes defined by hate crime legislation or by the Equality Act.  Prejudice is prejudice, no matter who or what its target.  Besides, adding one or more “protected characteristic” to what is already a long list would only lead bullies to find a new target.  The problem lies in the piecemeal nature of the legal framework. For social and historical reasons, some minority groups (and women, who were once a minority in the workplace) have banded together (have become “groups” indeed) and driven an awareness of the prejudice they encounter onto the political agenda in most Western countries.  Others have not.  The result is a law full of anomalies.

Legislation has become a means by which the modern state expresses its moral disapproval of certain actions and attitudes.  There are good arguments for that.  But it’s surely wrong that the law accords treatment to members of some statutorily-defined minorities and ignores others whose problems may well be experienced in precisely the same way.  It’s the very definition of privilege.  It sends out a message that some forms of irrational prejudice are more acceptable than others, that an unprovoked attack one someone is somehow worse if it’s motivated by the colour of their skin, or by their perceived sexuality, than by the colour of their hair or their weight.  In truth, there is an infinite number of possible hate crimes.  If the concept of has any meaning, it should apply irrespective of the personal characteristic, innate or adopted, cultural or sartorial, that inspires the hate.