Acceptable bigotry.

Until I moved to New Zealand I had never encountered prejudice against red-headed people. I was red-headed and freckled as a youngster growing up in Latin America, and I never met anyone who had something negative to say about my complexion and hair color even though it is rare in Latin societies. When I went to the US to go to university, I never heard a disparaging word about so-called “gingas” even though I had a red-headed flat mate for two years (by that time my hair had turned auburn). In all of my adult life in the US prior to moving to NZ, living on both coasts and several states north, south and central, I never once heard one unpleasant word about red-heads.

All that changed when I got here. Not only did I begin to read and hear about assaults on red-heads, including a viscous verbal attack on twin 6 year old girls by a car full of thugs, but I began to read mean-spirited ginga jokes at places like Kiwiblog, whose owner seems to think that all jokes about red-heads is harmless good fun.

Then today I saw this: “Ginger Oxygen Thief Receives Natural Justice.” This is the title of a post done by the blogger known as Whaleoil. In the post he links to CCVT footage from the UK of an unprovoked attack on a red-headed young man that leaves him unconscious and with a broken jaw. In his first paragraph WO attempts to be funny at the expense of the victim, and in the last paragraph he tries to be funny while casually decrying the attack. The comments on the post are a  mix of people shocked at the post and those who think it is funny. Those who think the post is funny outnumber those who do not.

This is not the first time that WO has belittled and denigrated “gingas.” In fact, the post mentioned above has links to his previous offerings on the subject. For a guy who is increasingly treated by the mainstream media as an authoritative commentator, the level of prejudice displayed in these posts would seem to be terminally disqualifying. Yet it apparently is not, which indicates a level of acceptance of such views far beyond what I would have considered reasonable in a fair-minded society.

In any event I am astounded by this latest post, and more generally, at the belief that ginga jokes and abuse are OK. If we substituted the words “Jew,” “woman,” “black, “Maori,” “indian,” “chinese” or those for any number of other human traits for the word “ginga,” would such “jokes” be acceptable? Why is it that denigrating someone for an innate trait–that is, one that they have no control over and which they cannot change because it is genetically determined– considered acceptable in some instances and not others? Jokes about behavior, customs, styles etc. may be tasteless but could possibly justified in the minds of some as being about the choices people make. But jokes about that which is not a matter of choice? Why is that acceptable in any instance?

I find the type of attitude that thinks it is acceptable to insult and denigrate people on the basis of their innate traits to be abhorrent. I understand that WO prides himself as being a provocateur and likes to wind people up as part of his “shtick,” but his implicit condoning of violence against red-heads is beyond the pale. It is bigotry, pure and simple. More troublesome than WO’s attitude is the fact that he is not alone in his belief that red-heads are fair game for mean-spirited attacks. In fact, the denigration of “gingas” seems to be widespread in NZ, and although I have never seen it expressed by those on the Left, I assume that it is not exclusively a form of Right-wing prejudice.

I may have made reference to bigotry against red-heads in a long-forgotten previous post. But the nasty post by WO has brought the issue back to my attention. The issue is that no matter how much defenders of attitudes such as WO’s claim it is all harmless fun and nothing more than humor, it is at its core mean, discriminatory and contrary to the norms of fair treatment and equality that supposedly underpin democratic society. There is nothing funny about prejudice, however it is disguised and regardless of to whom it is directed.

Thus I have one simple question. Can someone be so kind as to explain to me why bigotry against red-heads is deemed acceptable in NZ?


35 thoughts on “Acceptable bigotry.

  1. I can assure you that anti-red head sentiment is alive and well on the Left; I know several left-wingers who think it’s perfectly acceptable to tease me for my ginger locks and they don’t think such sentiments are in anyway disturbing.

    Anyway, my suspicion is that a lot of the anti-red head sentiment in New Zealand is a relic of the anti-Irish sentiment that was rife here until very recently. As to why it’s acceptable? I don’t know. Prejudices die hard, I suppose, and by phrasing it as “jokes about hair colour” rather than “marked comments about a particular ethnic group” people think it’s harmless and fun. As you say, if they were to swap out “ginga” for “Irish,” would they be so comfortable making those comments?

  2. Why would an archaic prejudice against the Irish continue to be passed down over generations when other forms of prejudice have not been (or are at least not considered to be acceptable forms of expression in public)? The point about switching to hair color rather than nationality as the focus of the jokes is well taken, but it still is a form of bigotry (again, however disguised).

  3. I honestly don’t know why that prejudice has survived but it is a prejudice in living memory: my Mother was identified as being of Irish stock when she went to school and suffered because of it. When she was looking for work in her twenties many job ads did specify “No Irish need apply.”

    Given that we still have significant anti-Māori and Pasifica prejudice here in Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu (New Zealand), I think its fair to say that we still have a number of such prejudices to rid ourselves of.

  4. Possibly a joke that got out of control?

    As far as I can tell, it’s all pretty new, maybe in the last 10 years? As a child of the 70s/80s in Wellington, I don’t remember any anti-redhead prejudice.

  5. This is a fascinating issue. And I certainly don’t have the answer, but I do sometimes ponder whether the anti-red-head phenomenon is a reaction to identity politics. From the point of view of those making the silly jokes against red-heads, they are satirically being discriminatory in way that is a parody of socially conservative/racist/sexist behaviour. So, yeah, it’s a rather weird kickback against political correctness in a country where anti-racism and anti-sexism is arguably the strongest in the world.

  6. There’s an entire episode of South Park dedicated to anti-red head hatred, not to mention countless other references in other US shows. Suggests to me that it’s alive and well in the US also

  7. MK: I have repeatedly heard the canard about the South Park episode. That suggests that such prejudice is a new phenomenon and perhaps limited to the scriptwriter’s experiences. Perhaps you have spent more time in the US than I have and can therefore illuminate me as to where such prejudice is alive and well, be it on “US shows” or otherwise.

    Bryce: What you seem to be suggesting, however unintentionally, is that anti red-head prejudice is in fact a sublimation of prejudices towards other historically discriminated groups such as Maori. That means that those who make anti red-head “jokes” are in fact deliberately substituting the term “red-head” for words associated with traditional targets of bigotry or racism. This allows for the vocalization of “traditional” prejudice (say, against Maori or Jews) without the usual consequences of doing so.

    I remain perplexed as to why it is acceptable to target red-heads, as opposed to any other group. The Irish carry-over would seem to be the most likely explanation, but again, in an increasingly asian and mixed-race society such as NZ, why would that particular archaic prejudice remain acceptable (under another name) when others have not?

  8. I’m a born and bred sixth generation New Zealander and I am completely mystified as to where this ridiculous “Ginga” thing has come from. Growing up, I never heard it mentioned by anyone. AS=s Thomas Beagle notes up thread, it has only gained any sort of currency over the last ten years or so as far as I can tell. I think he and Bryce Edwards have hit it on the head when they say it is a joke (where red heads act as a cypher for Maori or Wimmin or Jews) gone to far. Certainly, when I first heard it used perjoratively it was by way of ironic.


  9. Danyl: Your point being? I have seen the video and understand what it is trying to convey. What it is not trying to convey is acceptance of prejudice against red-heads.

  10. I was also a kid of the 70s/80s and distinctly remember the freckly orange-haired kid getting teased and tormented (though not to the exclusion of various others getting similar treatment, as a small weedy kid I welcomed the presence of kids who were fat, bespectacled or possessed of a stutter if only for their role in dividing the focus of the bully element). But I never associated it with a prejudice against the red-haired as opposed to the standard visciousness of children against those that are weak or different.

    The phenomenom that Paul describes is pretty obnoxious and I’m thinking relatively new, perhaps even a cultural import from another northern land.

    On a related note it never ceases to fascinate me that redhair is both a source of torment and at the same time a frequent focus of lust.

  11. I’m going to punt and say those calling it a recent or an isolated phenomenon in the NZ context haven’t been on the receiving end.

    I got it every damned day growing up in the 80s & 90s, from teachers & adults as well as other kids. Mostly trivial, often light-hearted, but often enough not. More than a few fights resulted, which were then — obviously! — blamed on my fiery temper.

    I think Bryce/Pablo’s analysis is correct here — it’s one of the few remaining outlets for unreconstructed bigotry, because it’s just a joke, right. And to an extent, as an adult, it’s absurd to complain about it — in comparison to “real” forms of discrimination, such as towards women, Māori, other minority ethnicities, homosexuals, the disabled and so on it is relatively benign and trivial. For kids it’s different, and so nonsense like this is a real problem, and execrable stunts like “Hug a Ginga Day” run by radio stations only perpetuates it.


  12. I’m pretty sure that the ‘ginger’ hate arrived here quite recently as a derivative of the convicts ‘ranga’/’ginga’ hate.

  13. I only immigrated in 2005, and so cannot comment on the history of discrimination against redheads here in NZ. What I can say is that it always strikes me as distasteful, and reminds me of the comments that I heard growing up about blacks with kwashiorkor.

  14. I just noticed that both WO and Kiwiblog have tag categories labeled “gingas.” I also googled “gingas,” and “blog” and found that the majority of references to “gingas” in NZ based blogs are from those on the right. Darren Hughes, Russell Norman (the “ginga twat” as he was referred to on one prominent rightwing blog) and Julia Gillard tended to be the most common objects of derision. But in virtually all cases and regardless of who it was directed at, the term “ginga’ was used as an epithet.

    I wonder why, if “ginga” is an acceptable tag label on prominent blogs, other such slurs such as the n-word are not? Why one and not the others? After all, the urban dictionary defines “ginga” and its equally despicable counterpart “ranga” (from orangutang) as derogatory in intent. So why not just unload on all innate-trait based stereotypes by tagging mentions of Maori, blacks, Jews etc with epithets as well? When it comes to (intended or not) bigotry, choosing one and not the others seems a bit precious.

    In any event, the use of such derisive terms says much more about those using them rather than those to whom they are directed.

  15. “Acceptable Bigotry” encapsulates this, but acceptable to who and why. One imagines there are presumably several russet haired among the tory and fascist ranks? They possibly have a ‘get out of jail free’ pass given Pablo’s stated observations.

    But if such red heads have any courage or personal dignity they should be rankling like me, a 5th gen kiwi non ‘ginga’ Irish heritage leftie.
    Is this some kind of mangled ‘transference’ of good ’ol Kiwi bullying? Heh, those 60s Thalidimide kids look a bit off too…

    For goodness sake enough suits with perfect teeth are causing most of us enough grief so maybe it is a different kind of last place aversion

  16. I was born in the early 70’s, and was verbally and physically abused by my peers for being “a ginger nuts”; it is not a new thing.
    Due to the recent failed ginger beer marketing campaign, I have had several friends and colleagues (none of them red-headed) ask my opinion of the campaign. I instead asked them “If you substitute the word ‘g’ word for the ‘n’ word, how does it make you feel?” the reaction from all was shock that I could suggest something so ludicrous as clearly they are not at all similar. We have a long way to go.

  17. I’ve never understood the jokes about red hair. They’re never actually funny. Most comments about red hair seem to have an “ew” factor to it. It also seems to propagate like other bullying does; monkey see, monkey do. If you’re not a red-head you’re welcome to join in, kind of thing.


  18. Prejudice and jokes against red-heads has always been around. It may have been anti-Irish in the NZ and Oz context, but that has faded as the Irish proportion of society has diminished.

    Most likely it was and is just a convenient minority for natural bully’s to have a go at. Recessive genes mean red-heads are always a tiny minority (I was surprised how many Irish were blond or brunettes), and their European ethnicity makes them an ‘acceptable’ target (colonisers & imperialists and all that). Ditto blond jokes.

    My aunt was teased badly in the 60s for her vivid red hair, so its not new.

    For NZ, several people above have noted the upswing in ‘ginga hate’ in the last decade. Thank Marc Ellis for that – he was always putting in digs against red-heads when he was prominent on his TV show with Matthew Ridge ten years back or so. Ellis seemed to pioneer the term ‘ginga’ and ‘ranga’ in NZ. It seemed to catch on and became fashionable.

    I had never heard it til then (but had always heard other terms – Te Radar gave a rundown recently on National Radio). There were also those ‘nothing suss’ Oz comedians who ran a series of ‘ginga’ gags.

  19. “…Thank Marc Ellis for that – he was always putting in digs against red-heads when he was prominent on his TV show with Matthew Ridge ten years back or so. Ellis seemed to pioneer the term ‘ginga’ and ‘ranga’ in NZ. It seemed to catch on and became fashionable…”

    By Jove, I think this also was when I first heard anti-ginger jokes. I thought they were absurd at the time, but they seem to have caught on. If some PhD student could prove that Ellis had taken a latent and relatively scattered and obscure type of prejudice and used the media to manufacture it into the national consciousness as an ongoing pogrom based on – of all things – hair colour it would seem to me be an awful warning of the power of propaganda and an indictment of the irresponsibility of modern TV programmers.

  20. So, is this about Labour? Communism? Honestly, in this day and age, I would love to have some ginger genes floating around within my gene line. My cousins are part red gened and it adds to the arsenal of diversification.

    It’s been one of the most strangest prejudices I’ve ever come across.

    The only thing that has me worried for red heads is whether they are true pale skins and have to make sure they don’t burn in our sun too much, other than that I have no clue to why we should be visiting such strange behavior towards another human being.

  21. Regarding MK’s comment, I’m a mid-30s American, and despite that South Park episode, I’ve never in my life seen prejudice against redheads. Maybe it’s a new thing that the younger people imported from overseas (I’ve heard of it in the UK, and some people like to copy from there), but I’ve never actually seen it.

  22. i thought the red-headed thing went back centuries, and red-headed children were thought to be spawn of the devil. so i searched, and wikipedia appears to agree with me to some extent (

    best of all is this site which dates the prejudice back to ancient egypt & greece and possibly even back to cain! see–Legends–and-Famous-Red-Hair

    as for the notion that nz is “arguably” the country with the strongest level of anti-racism & anti-sexism, that’s a claim that can only be made by a white man. would you like me to list all the times i’ve been asked to “go back to ‘my’ country” in the last year, as if nz can’t possibly be my country? sheesh, i even managed to win a pen from the waikato times for the best letter of the week, just by describing one incident out of so many. here it is:

    but back to the basic point of this post, i agree with you pablo that discrimination on the basis of innate, or even chosen, characteristics is just crap.

  23. I have stopped reading that rancid blog by the woman/maori/homosexual/jew/catholic/english hater,who makes fun of the dead, he is just Kyle Chapman with a blog.

    As for Kiwiblog, see how many demerits by calling the Redhead hater “fatty”

    This is the first time i have read your blog, and have found it very enjoyable, well written.

  24. stargazer:

    My interest was not so much in the origins of anti-red head prejudice but in why it is seemingly so prevalent in the supposed egalitarian liberal democracy that is NZ.

    ratty: The issue is not the attitude of those particular bloggers per se but the more generalized prejudice that they are symptomatic of. I just used the cited post as a catalyst for writing.

    I should also mention that we try not to be abusive towards others (admittedly a hard task at times, and I have been less than consistent on that score). Had you hurled insults here you comment would have been deleted (we do not do demerits).

  25. Very insightful. Ginger bashing in NZ, well thats not going to stop this yank from visiting…….Over here we gingers don’t even get a second look and are not worth bashing. In fact the female ginger is often a lucky….. but thats another story. Nice post pablo, at least you are thinking about me…….

  26. Because people are jerks and bullies, especially when they think they’re being funny. And redheads are a smaller minority than other similarly targeted groups.

  27. HB: The ever compassionate WO posted about this story, claiming that red-headed backlash against such bullying is a condition known as “gingervitis.” He thinks that was funny, but most of his respondents do not, so at least there is hope for some on the Right.

  28. I agree with the above commentators that this is nothing new in the playground, even if it is perhaps new in the media. I grew up in the 80’s and was constantly teased about having auburn hair, though there was never any violent undertones to any of it. I assume it was because it was a point of difference, and children, and adults who never quite grow up, generally latch on to things that.

  29. UK tv shows and films have been throwing around phrases like “a ginger tosser” and the horrible but memorable “beaten like a redheaded stepchild” since at least the 90s. I’ve always assumed nz was just copying the uk. It’s become something of a meme lately. As has been pointed out already, if you don’t think kiwis are inherently bigoted in other ways you’re just sheltered… advertising is still sometimes sexist (tui, rabo) and racist (vodafone, just juice). Because redheads arent a distinct consumer or voting bloc, and have no organisation to support them, things are more overt against them. Sad but simple.

  30. My family has celtic origin so we have red heads in our family. I have auburn hair and am female. But I know my brother with red hair suffered from it at school, and he even dyed his hair brown and then got picked on about that of course.

    I think there is a certain element in society that likes to bully. Red heads are a minority, so are just a target. Its an excuse to pick on someone.

    If someone complains about it it is considered that they are complaining about nothing, so the bullies can get away with it.

    Also I think its considered okay to target a group that is a sub-group of a ‘European/white’ skin colour, because people are less tuned in to this kind of discrimination.

    As a red-headed girl (and my hair turned pretty dark auburn quickly) I got away from it, but I do remember unsolitcited comments about my naturally freckly skin which hurt at the time (I was a teenager)! Now I deliberately don’t try to tan and keep my skin healthy by wearnig sunblock all the time. It does take some self confidence to do this, but I don’t want to die from melanoma or other skin cancer. I have thought that for a red headed guy it must be very difficult to keep pale because of the bullying, and must be another factor in the high melanoma death rates in NZ – 326 in last recorded year (2x as high for men than for women). Celtic skin is most likely to get skin cancer.

    I am glad you’ve brought this up. Bullying and discrimination isn’t a joke, whatever form it takes. People kill themselves because of bullying.

  31. Yeah, well people who bully red heads, bully anyone (WO take note) you and your mates are pathetic, school yard bullies who never grew up.

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