Tuesday, December 19, 2006

More on Red Hair

The gene for red hair is more concentrated among the Scots than among any other people on earth. While fewer than 4% of people in the general population carry the gene, more than 10% of Scots have red hair, and another 40% carry the red-headed gene. The Celts of the British Isles may have derived the gene for red hair from interbreeding with the Vikings who inflicted so much damage on England in the ninth and tenth centuries. That gene was part of the genetic material which the marauding Norsemen passed along to the Normans who invaded England in the eleventh century. With England’s long history of conquest by red-headed peoples, the average Anglo-Saxon has retreated into racial prejudice against the minority among whom the “ginger gene” has expressed itself.

A team of molecular biologists at Oxford University has conducted research which seems to locate the origin of the red-headed gene among the Neanderthals who inhabited Europe beginning about 250,000 years ago. The researchers speculate that some of the Neanderthals may have successfully interbred with Homo sapiens to preserve the red-headed gene. If this is the case, the prejudice against “gingers” may be among the oldest forms of racial prejudice, having its origins in the influx of Homo sapiens from Africa into Europe some 40,000 years ago.

My new short English haircut.

In a strange reversal of the white prejudice against those of African descent, genetic material that existed in Europe 100,000 years ago has singled me out for prejudice on the part of those whose genetic material came out of Africa 40,000 years ago. Fortunately, this prejudice doesn’t seem to manifest itself as overt discrimination, only in relatively harmless pointing, laughing, and name-calling. Daniel Davies, a red-headed columnist for the English newspaper The Guardian, writes that “although it is clear that hatred of gingers is a form of racial prejudice, it is the most trivial form of prejudice on earth.” He quips: “There is no sense in which the white man is keeping the even whiter man down.”

It’s strange, nonetheless, to find myself the target of slurs based entirely on my genetic and cultural background—part Scottish, part Scandinavian, part Neanderthal.

Left: Judas. Detail from Gaspart Isenmann (15th c. German), Betrayal and Arrest of Christ. Right: Gareth Armstrong in his one-man show, Shylock, a hit of the 2003 Edinburgh Festival.

There is an old tradition, dating to the sixteenth century or earlier, that Judas Iscariot had red hair. This tradition connects the trival prejudice against red hair with the much more damaging prejudice of anti-Semitism. Until the early nineteenth century, Shakespeare’s Jewish merchant, Shylock, was portrayed on stage with red hair. In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens describes Fagin as “a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.” Red hair and a large hooked nose were the two most common visual markers of the stereotypical Jew, just as greed was the most common character trait (a trait stereotypically shared with the red-headed Scottish).

It’s interesting, in light of my experience as a “ginger” person in England, to reflect on J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of the red-headed Weasley family. Clearly, the Weasleys are sympathetic characters, but it’s also clear that there are wizards (including the suspiciously Aryan Malfoys) who regard them as wizard white-trash. Within the racial categories of wizarding world, the red-headed Weasleys are only a step up from mudbloods.

E.U. Commissioner Lord Kinnock

Perhaps because of their experience of trivial prejudice, red-heads tend to be prominent in the left-leaning political opposition in Britain. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Scotsman Charles Kennedy, is a red-head. So is Welshman Neil Kinnock, who languished as leader of the Labour Party during the Tory ascendancy of the 1980s. Baron Kinnock laments: “I’ve lost count of the times male characters in films who are odd, psycho, or can’t get a date are ginger. Usually they’re fat and wear glasses too.”

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