Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Deviant Hair

During the year my family spent in England, I often found myself the object of stares as I walked down the street. People pointed and laughed, and called out a derogatory name with a much more infamous anagram. I was called “ginger.” I had been teased as a child for my red hair, but never as an adult had I experienced such treatment, such derision, from complete strangers.

The strangest incident took place in the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral, when I was approached by two youths in black leather who offered me twenty pounds to drop my trousers and show them my “ginger pubes.”

None of my experiences of “gingerism” turned violent, but incidents of violence against gingers in England are not uncommon. For example, in June 2007, as I was preparing to return home from England, there was news of the Chapman family in Newcastle-on-Tyne, who had been forced to move because of attacks on the family’s three red-haired children. Their house had been repeatedly vandalized with anti-ginger graffiti. Windows had been smashed. The oldest child, an eleven-year old boy, had been attacked by a gang, punched, kicked, and thrown over a hedge.

The attack on eleven-year old Kevin Chapman was not an isolated incident. In Birmingham, a red-haired man was attacked in a pizza shop and suffered a broken jaw. In Hampshire, another red-haired man was attacked. In Yorkshire, a red-haired man was stabbed.

Do such attacks qualify as hate crimes? Opinions differ, even among redheads themselves. Nelson Jones, writing in New Statesman, argues that “such attacks would meet most natural definitions of hate crimes.” He continues:

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.

Another redhead, Ally Fogg, writes in The Guardian that the prejudice against gingers, while real, doesn’t rise to the level of the systematic discrimination and abuse experienced by other minority groups, particularly racial and sexual minorities. Or, as redheaded Daniel Davies put it in The Guardian: “There is no sense in which the white man is keeping the even whiter man down.”

I thought about the strange phenomenon of “gingerism,” and more broadly about hair as a stigma and marker of difference, as I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah.

At the beginning of the novel, as she prepares to return to Nigeria after fifteen years in the United States, Ifemelu takes the train from Princeton to Trenton to have her hair braided at an African hair braiding salon. In the first 450 pages of the novel, the narrative moves back and forth between America, England, and Nigeria, and between Ifemelu’s past and present, but it continues to circle back to the hair salon in Trenton and Ifemelu’s conversation with Aisha, the Senegalese braider.

Hair becomes central to Ifemelu’s experience of race in America. Soon after her arrival in America, Ifemelu is told that for a successful job interview she needs to relax her hair.  She eventually becomes a successful independent blogger, but her first experience of an online community is when she goes online to find natural hair care advice and support. Much later, when she’s become more attuned to the politics of race in America, she imagines how powerful it would be if Michelle Obama were to start appearing with natural hair.  

Hair is a marker of race, but unlike skin color, hair is not immutable. It can be relaxed and straightened. Its color can be changed. It can be forced a little closer to the cultural norm.

In a 1987 study of the “sociology of hair,” sociologist Anthony Synnott remarks on the evolution of African-American hairstyles in the 1950s and 1960s, as the straightened hair style known as the “conk” was abandoned for more natural hair as a symbol of resistance to white cultural norms. Synnott concludes that hair is a social phenomenon that facilitates the expression of  social distinctions, including the ideological distinction between what he calls “centre” (the cultural norm) and “deviant.” 

For African-Americans in the 1960s, natural hair, which had been stigmatized as “deviant,” became a source of pride and identity. When members of an oppressed or marginalized group embrace a characteristic that was a source of stigmatization, and make it a positive source of personal and group identity, a sociologist might refer to them as “tertiary deviants.” "Deviant" here is a non-judgmental term used in sociology ("labeling theory") to describe deviance from a cultural norm.

As an African-American child growing up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, Angela Davis resented her natural hair. “I pleaded with my mother to let me get it straightened, like my friends,” she wrote in her autobiography. Like most children, she felt a powerful urge to conform, to minimize difference, to be like her friends. But as an adult in the late 1960s, her natural hair became a symbol of pride and resistance. “My natural hair style, in those days still a rarity,” she wrote, “identified me as a sympathizer with the Black Power Movement.”

In a 1997 study of redheads, sociologists from Ithaca College and Syracuse University concluded that red hair was also stigmatized as a kind of deviance. As children, redheads are more likely to become the targets of bullying, which often results in increased self-consciousness and lower self-esteem, and in a general feeling of being different from their peers. But as redheads become adults, the researchers found, they “typically transform a negative experience into a positive one by learning to appreciate their hair color and how it has shaped their sense of self.”  In other words, they conclude, redheads become “tertiary deviants.”

Works Consulted

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah: A Novel. New York: Anchor Books, 2014.

Davies, Daniel. Seeing red. The Guardian. 6 November 2006.

Davis, Angela Y. An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1974.

Fogg, Ally. Gingerism is real, but not all prejudices are equal to one another. The Guardian. 15 January 2013.

Hargro, Brina, “Hair Matters: African American Women and the Natural Hair Aesthetic.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2011.

Heckert, Druann M. and Amy Best. “Ugly Duckling to Swan: Labeling Theory and the Stigmatization of Red Hair.” Symbolic Interaction 20 (1997), 365-384.

Jones, Nelson. Should ginger-bashing be considered a hate crime? New Statesman. 10 January 2013.

Synnott, Anthony. “Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair.” British Journal of Sociology 38 (1987), 381-413.

1 comment:

Brendon Etter said...

Great article, Rob. Attacks on redheads, though not as pervasive, systemic and virulent as racist, sexist, or heterosexist violence, should still be considered a hate crime. It's not a comparative parameter; it's just crime motivated by irrational fear of the "other." I have read that gingerism against adults is more prevalent in the UK. Sounds like your experience supports that.

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