Monday, July 11, 2016

Red Hair and Accidental Segregation

Over the course of researching red hair and writing this blog I've realised something quite profound - and that is the dangers and problems that can develop from obsessions about race and ethnicity.

I mentioned this briefly in the Introduction to the draft book I published on here, but would now like to reflect a little further.

Looking back I guess I originally approached the topic of red hair with something of a victim mentality - albeit a victim mentally with a bit more spirit and verve than is usual. As a child I had red hair myself and felt different because of it. I also experienced a fair bit of teasing and a little bit of mild bullying too.

So, when I started taking a wider interest in red hair I think I was looking, subconsciously to some extent, for an origin story for red hair. I sensed that red hair didn't quite belong and therefore speculated that maybe it came from somewhere else. From some ancient red-haired tribe or nation. Some exclusively red-haired branch of the human race that at some point had been subsumed into the wider human population.

I guess I wanted a homeland for redheads.

I didn't quite fit in, so I wanted a place where I did fit in. In fact, this very blog and its accompanying website can in some ways be seen as a little island for redheads. A nation-state where redheads can feel a little bit more self-assured and a little less alien.

However, I've since lost the need for this homeland. Whereas I once felt red hair to be an intrinsic and important part of who I am - a defining feature of me as an individual - I now feel this much less so. I don't feel it defines me as much as it used to. My opinions on red hair are now almost completely detached from the emotional baggage that used to come with it. I'm much more objective and any personal bias that once may have coloured my judgements on it is diminishing by the day.

I now appreciate red hair much more aesthetically as an observer. I think this can be seen in the way this blog has slowly moved from history and more towards art (although I'm still very much fascinated by the history of it).

It also seems that redheads are getting much fairer treatment in the media and in public life now (it's sometimes even considered cool!!) - so I now feel much less of a need to defend and promote it.

Of course, I was always intelligent enough to understand the superficiality of focusing so much attention on what is in many ways just a physical trait, however my personal feelings nevertheless still crept through - as a redhead I was obviously looking for the good things about red hair. I wanted a positive identity for red hair, as opposed to the negative one I was given by society.

Having come through this process I'm now very aware of how easy it is to create or foster a sense of separate identify. Even with something as simple as red hair it's easy to create a common culture for those that possess it - one in which people can belong or not belong for this reason alone.

This is not so much of a problem with red hair, as redheads are so uncommon, and pop-up so randomly amidst the non-redhead population that a genuinely separate culture could never really take shape. However, there are other things - such as religion, or more clearly separated ethnic or genetic traits -  that can become points around which separate groups can form. Or that pre-existing groups can focus upon to isolate themselves or others further and heighten divisions.

The obvious one is Jewishness. I've mentioned the often common links between Jewishness and red hair on this blog and elsewhere before, and it's something I've developed a little bit of an interest in. However, just as I've noticed how easy it's been for myself to carve out a separate "redhead" identity, I've also noticed how the separateness of Jewish people has been heightened - often completely accidentally, in a similar, but much larger way.

It's easy to see how a sense of persecution can lead one to rally around the reason for that persecution - and in turn express even greater pride and personal attachment to those things which caused this sense of separateness in the first place. Just as I've done with my once maligned red hair. They called me redhead - so I then chose to see myself as a redhead. This is a perfectly natural thing to do, but it's hard to step back and see the larger potential consequences of it.

This has been on my mind a lot recently, especially with all that's happening in the world, and I now feel it may be time to start using my experience as a redhead to start emphasising the reasons for division, rather than the division itself.

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