Brian L. Gray: It’s not easy being red
Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you today, on paper, as a redhead.
I’ve dealt with red hair all my life. I was born with it. I didn’t ask for it. It was given to me.
Living every waking moment, up to this point, as a redhead has made me realize that people of my ilk aren’t liked by some individuals.
The worst was growing up red. Other students I went to school with targeted redheads, and I wasn’t exempt from that abuse. Students often tripped me in the hallways, mocked me, deliberately bumped into me and insulted me for no reason other than having red hair. I never understood how I could be prejudiced against simply because I looked Irish.
Even scientists mock us in their own way, as they categorically define redheads as “genetic mutations.”
Sadly though, they’re right. Redheads are a dying breed, and on a path towards inevitable extinction. A study came out in 2007, conducted by the Oxford Hair Foundation (which must be viewed as a reliable source because it’s from Oxford) claiming that redheads are such a recessive gene that, based on the declining rate of new redheads in this world, we could be wiped out in 100 years.
This prediction was later disputed, however. A news story from the website hairfinder.com, which I believe is a site devoted to either assisting people with the balding gene or helping lonely hair follicles find a mate, debunks the rate proposed in the study. The website states there are 4 percent of people in the world who carry the red hair gene, and although we are considered endangered at this time, there’s no reason to place us in zoos quite yet.
Redheads may be rare, but that did nothing during my childhood to make me cool. I was still picked on. It makes me wonder if this is something that occurred throughout history. Do you think prehistoric packs of lions picked on wooly mammoths as they walked around minding their own business?
Lion 1: (spotting a wooly mammoth) “Hey, wooly! Shave your back, you hairy freak!”
Lion 2: “Yeah, you look like an elephant and Cousin Itt had a lovechild!”
Lion 3: (tapping on Lion 1 and 2’s manes) “Hey guys, look! There’s a red haired mammoth over there! Let’s stuff him in a locker!”
On the other hand, here’s something I noticed early on in life – old folks love redheads. One of my grandmothers used to sit me on her lap for hours when I was an infant and accentuated the red curls on my head. My mother also used to drag me along when she played piano for people in retirement homes. I always complained because I didn’t like being gawked at by old women who often snuck up behind me and petted my hair, telling me how much they loved it. It drove me nuts.
Having grandmothers admire my hair didn’t do me any good, I knew, because they were never there to defend me when I was going to school.
Cuteness, I learned, comes a curse.
I have friends who don’t agree with me on this, but I believe when people are young they find celebrities they relate to based on physical similarities between the two of them and, whether consciously or subconsciously, mirror certain characteristics of themselves after that person. I had a friend act like Daniel Larusso from “The Karate Kid” because he looked like him; another took on traits of David Letterman.
I never did this, because I couldn’t find a redhead to look up to. There were a lot of redheads in popular culture when I was a child, but none of them were cast as the hero in movies. Let’s face it – Opie was adorable, but he was never cool.
I remained guru-less until my teenage years, when a comedy writer came along and altered things for redheads of my generation. Out of the woodwork came a crimson-topped Irishman, Conan O’Brien, who began changing the perception of redheads and quickly became my guru. We were still geeks, but could now be viewed as funny.
Things were rough for me for a few more years after that, but one day, out of the blue, the ridicule stopped. I didn’t know what happened – it wasn’t Conan who stopped the mocking, it was something else.
I’d eventually hit a point in age where the people’s maturity around me had grown. All those years of prejudice and torture had been projected on me strictly because of the follies of youth. I look back fondly on my growing years these days, but I don’t ever want to go through it again.
Another Irish comic, Colin Quinn, once said on his short-lived TV show Tough Crowd, “What’s childhood but a series of injustices you spend the rest of your life trying to avenge?”
And maybe that’s all it takes to be seen as cool – time. Even Opie displayed his cool years later by directing movies like “Cinderella Man” and “ED TV.”
A friend of mine recently said she had a dream to be in the movie “Back to the Future,” where she would play Marty McFly. Then she told me that I would play Biff Tannen, the film’s antagonist and bully.
And I was honored she said that. Her comment was precisely the antithesis of what I’d been raised redheads were. Because redheads never portray the bullies. We always play the nerds.
Well, apparently the revenge of the nerds has come. Now we can be viewed as the bullies. It’s not exactly the best direction, I admit, but I think it shows progress. We can now be viewed by society as both funny and tough.
We live in a nation far too preoccupied with the physical nature of beings. I often sit back and dream of a day that redheads will be seen as equals. Where our pigment won’t be laughed at, where we won’t be viewed as stereotypical nerds. Who knows – maybe this country will even have a redheaded president someday.
It could be possible. All we have to do is make forward progress. This dream could be a reality eventually, and I can make it possible by taking one step at time.
As long as no one trips me.