When I was growing up, I considered my older brother the family favorite. He had a lot of personality. I'd overhear my parents discussing the nice things neighbors had said about his gift of gab and his quick wit. He could talk my mother out of a bad mood or impending punishment with ease, something I, the middle child, could never do. And, unique in our family, he was marked as special by a shock of bright red hair. My hair was nondescript brown, and nobody ever mentioned it. His drew raves.
It might have been different had we grown up in England. I recently learned that redheads there are often referred to, apparently derisively, as "gingers." The Telegraph reports that a woman in Halifax was insulted when a bank employee, seeing a picture of the woman's daughter pop up on her mobile phone, said, "I bet your daughter's glad she isn't ginger like you." The bank has been forced to pay the customer a sum of money and apologize for the employee's comment.
This may seem like an overreaction to us, but my sources say the use of the word in the United Kingdom, perhaps originally aimed primarily at Scots and Irish, is not unlike some racial slurs you might be familiar with here. Not so in Canada and the U.S., probably because so many Irish, Welsh, and Highland Scots settled here, and there's not been that much friction. Which is not to say earlier Irish immigrants didn't feel the lash of prejudice, although I never heard of their being called gingers. For most of my life, I've heard teasing, joking comments, such as "treated like a red-headed stepchild," but nothing usually intended to be insulting.
While we Americans may not be in the habit of using "ginger" as an insult to redheads, we have plenty of other little words or phrases designed to highlight the "otherness" of those who aren't exactly like us. Different religion? Refer to them by an undignified term. Different color? You know the words. Italian? Polish? Any other ethnicity? Pin a tag on them, and then you will always think of them first as different, and second, grudgingly, as Americans. Or as humans.
I'm not saying this to lecture. I'm at least as guilty of the habit as anyone else. It's easy, lazy, tempting, thoughtless, and damaging to our own ability to see others rationally. Not to mention being painful and needlessly harmful to the target.
We'd like to think that, in our enlightened, modern world, we're growing out of such habits. We've erased some of the unfortunate tendency to stereotype where race is concerned, or at least driven it underground. But the human mind is inventive, and for every pejorative tag we erase, someone is coming up with at least one other one. Like "ginger."
Some folks in England, discussing The Telegraph story, say the use of "ginger" as an attack on or at least a put-down for redheads, has become prevalent just in their lifetime. Some say it has been around, though perhaps more limited, forever.
It's a good thing I didn't know about all this years ago, when I met and fell for a beautiful redhead. Evidently I wasn't the only one who considered red hair a plus, for I had plenty of competition. But, as they say, "slow and steady wins the race." Persistence paid off, and I eventually persuaded her to marry me. And we produced another beautiful redhead.
I decided to try out this spicy nickname on my wife. I went in to where she sat reading and said to her, "What would you think if I called you 'ginger'?"
She didn't bother to look up from her book. "I'd think you must have met somebody named Ginger in an Internet chat room, and you can pack your bags," she said. "But remember, I get the house, both dogs, and half your retirement."
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."