Manufacturing prejudice

by PhilGoetz1 min read3rd Apr 201173 comments


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There's a tradition in England - I don't know how old - of abusing red-headed people.  It's a genuine prejudice in England.  From this facebook page:

'Ginger' in England basically is like saying:

"Look there's an ugly, smelly, no friends, socially unacceptable, negative, aggressive, angry, violent, unclean, nasty, non boyfriend material, low self esteem, unattractive, social misfit, nerdy, moron, low education, non human...etc etc etc"

The term 'ginger' didn't become 'mainstream' just because of that South Park episode, I was being shot at, having acid thrown over me, stabbed, headbutted, punched, spat on, kicked, dehumanised, singled out, socially excluded, avoided, belittled, character assassinated etc since I can remember and to be fair I found that treatment was at its peak years before that South Park episode was even thought up.

This spread to the US in 2005, when Cartman tried to incite violence against redheads in a South Park episode with "Kick a Ginger Day".

What's interesting is how this meme is spreading in the US: As humor.  This meme is promoted by sites like and, which mine it as a source of ironic humor.  The Cheezburger Network is pushing ginger-hatred almost as aggressively as they push pedophilia as a fount of humor.

Are humans capable of, collectively, keeping real and humorous/ironic racism separate?  No, they are not. What South Park "kicked" off as an ironic commentary on racism is becoming actual racism.

One clue that you're going too far in your ironic humor is when you start finding the real thing funny.

Do humans have an instinctive need to bond over shared prejudices?  Is combating racism a game of whack-a-mole, in which society invents new prejudices to replace the ones being taken away?

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As someone from the southern US, I was asked (jokingly) about whether or not I was a racist when I went north for college. At first I was repulsed by the question, until I noticed that I automatically got more nervous when passing a black person on the street at night. I am going to college in Cleveland, and so I have some actual reason for this since every mugger I've seen for five years in incident reports has been black. My problem (though I only started defining it this way within the past few months of reading LW) is that I was weighting race far too strongly in my everyday interactions.

After I realized I was doing this, I decided to switch my threat assessment style to a more clothing-based approach, with some success. Everyday interactions with other races than my native white within the university also felt easier and less forced. Taking an implicit association test helped me to realize that I was racist to some degree despite my intense repulsion to the idea. I now encourage everyone to examine their thought process for racism, especially if they would feel dismay if someone accused them of racism.

The term 'ginger' didn't become 'mainstream' just because of that South Park episode, I was being shot at, having acid thrown over me, stabbed, headbutted, punched, spat on, kicked, dehumanised, singled out, socially excluded, avoided, belittled, character assassinated etc since I can remember and to be fair I found that treatment was at its peak years before that South Park episode was even thought up.

Noticing my confusion here, I live in England and have never observed this level of prejudice. The kicking and punching I can just about believe, the acid is very implausible.

3PhilGoetz10yYes, I think one person being shot at, having acid thrown over one, and being stabbed for being red-headed would have made the news. But something's going on. A little time with google turns up a lot of people in England complaining about bullying of redheads.
2atucker10yFor some reason my brain interpreted this as an idiom (meaning harsh language or criticism or something), rather than a statement of fact. Not sure if its supposed to be that.
2benelliott10yI don't think so, it does actually happen to some groups that suffer from severe prejudice (I believe its been known to occur in Northern Ireland), especially since the rest of the list is approximately in decreasing order of severity and it comes between 'shot at' and 'stabbed'. It might be that one person has suffered vastly more prejudice than any of the English red-heads I have ever met or heard about prior to this point, or it might be that the source is exaggerating.
1NancyLebovitz10yAnother angle on throwing acid-- it could have happened, but the risk and damage aren't indicated. It could have been a serious attack, with scarring or blinding as the result. It could have been weak acid, immediately washed off, but very frightening in terms of implying a serious attack. It could have been anything in between.
1NancyLebovitz10yThere's apt to be local variation in intensity of prejudice. Also, throwing acid is extreme behavior, but it's quite possible to be unlucky and happen to be in the presence of someone who is unusually violent.
0Pavitra10yIt makes sense that there would be variation, but saying local variation implies local correlation. Why would that be? Do people feel a need to be racist to about the same degree as their peers?
4NancyLebovitz10yI'd call that extremely likely. If you have a different model, could you describe it?
2Pavitra10yNo, that seemed like the most likely explanation to me too. I don't remember why I felt a need to ask. Maybe something about how the illusion of transparency can be especially bad in political discussions.
2Ritalin8yIt would still be good to propose alternate hypotheses.

I feel like the asymmetry in experience between red-haired and non-red-haired is important here.

Like, if you don't have red hair, joking about being hostile towards red haired people feels entirely innocuous. Even mild assault isn't that big of a deal (imagine playfully kicking someone in the shins). You're just joking, right?

If you do have red hair being told that you're subhuman or being assaulted because of your hair color doesn't feel nearly as inconsequential.

Spreading the meme feels harmless to the meme-spreaders, but the meme itself feels harmful to the victims.

4David_Gerard10yThis is what is commonly meant by the term "privilege" these days: an advantage you have whether you know you do or not, and particularly if you don't know. Edit: as already noted [] by JulianMorrison.
2atucker10yYeah, that's what I had in mind when I was writing this. Maybe someone should writeup a short article about it? It seems like a useful idea.

yes, we hate not having outgroups because they serve so well to help reassure us in our ingroup values.

1JoshuaZ10yThis hypothesis would explain outgroup/ingroup activity only in contexts where there are associated values. That doesn't fit in the example in question.

No, no. You just have to have two groups. "- And that was quite sufficient."

3JoshuaZ10yThat shows that given an outgroup people will construct narratives about different value systems. That doesn't support Nazgulnarsil's claim that "we hate not having outgroups because they serve so well to help reassure us in our ingroup values" which is about the artificial construction of outgroups, not what happens after there's an outgroup.
7jake98772210ySure there are associated values. By implying that a particular out-group is "ugly, smelly, no friends, socially unacceptable, negative, aggressive," etc. etc., you simultaneously imply that your in-group is none of those things. You elevate the in-group by derogating the out-group. Presumably you and your in-group value not having all of those negative traits.

My experience of this, as a ginger person born in Ireland, is that the prejudice is consciously ironic, and in general harmless, has nevertheless conditioned people in the UK to view red-hair as low-status. The result is that people who probably would have been bullied anyway have their hair color picked on if it's red. I've also overheard completely un-ironic statements from women, generally of the more superficially status loving sort, that they would never go out with a red haired man. So while the acid throwing is probably anomalous, the point about pe... (read more)

5gwern8yYou have to admit, that's an improvement over being thought to be dying, a dead corpse, a ghost, spirit, or ancestor returned from the dead - just to name a few interpretations of palefaces like yourself that I have seen in anthropological materials.
1zslastman8yI was also told by someone that red haired people are so rare in Colombia that people make a wish when they see one. this may or may not have been a joke.

I have lived in England for thirty years, and previously lived in Scotland, and I have never, ever, encountered anything resembling even slightly the account on that Facebook page. In fact, apart from the copycat incidents linked to by the OP, I have never heard of such things happening on account of ginger hair anywhere in the world.

I don't believe it.

6JulianMorrison10yThis is one variety of "privilege" - being so personally out of the loop as a person who doesn't get discriminated against that you don't even believe in the discrimination. In reality you are trapped in a "small world" like the (apocryphal) Hollywood actress who said "I can't believe Nixon won, nobody I know voted for him".
0RichardKennaway10yDo you have any evidence that ginger-bashing has ever occurred anywhere except in response to the South Park episode?
5PhilGoetz10ySpend a few minutes with google. Try things like '"red hair" prejudice England'.
3RichardKennaway10yOk, I agree that it happens more than I had thought.
5khafra10yIrish descent [] and red hair are strongly correlated.
5JulianMorrison10yI have my experience from childhood, that ginger people were picked upon, long before South Park existed. Beating-up, I don't recall. Name-calling, I do. But then, I went to schools that weren't rough. Not expecting my personal recall to be strong evidence to you. Consider though the phrase "red headed stepchild". That one is old, and its antiquity should be fairly strong evidence.
4taryneast10yI have pretty-much only just arrived in the UK and I have been horrified by tthe "just joking (only not)" attitude towards people with red hair. Mainly it's jokes - and those with actual red hair that I've met do the same sort of jokes in a slightly self-deprecating, slightly cringing way. Sounding like they'd obviously been singled out for victimisation all their life. I've also heard actual discrimination talk. Of the sort that contains phrases like "oh, well he's ginger, you know what they're like." That kind of attitude is quite astonishing over such a nonsensical physical attribute.
0TheOtherDave10yNow that you mention it, the idea that redheads are hot-tempered and irrational (which is itself a vestige of the "Irish temper" myth) does have a certain purchase on this side of the pond (U.S.)... though I mostly think of that as an artifact of mid-20th-century genre fiction, and in that context it mostly seems to apply to women, often coupled with a certain "you're so cute when you're angry" dismissiveness.
2David_Gerard10yThe original post matches for lots of English (in particular) redheads I know. Coming from Australia to the UK, I boggle slightly at it.
2PhilGoetz10yWhich matches? The original post, or Richard's experience?
1David_Gerard10yThe original post. (Clarified, thanks!)

I think the reason that it's considered funny is that, while many consider racists stupid, it is almost unbelievably silly to think of someone as sub-human because of their hair color. It is true that I haven't actually experienced prejudice of this kind but many of my red-haired friends routinely make ginger related jokes. At least in my circles, racism against red-haired people is entirely ironic.
It might be worth noting that we were first exposed to anti-ginger feelings though humor, not from any legitimately racist source.

4NancyLebovitz8yI can see strategic reasons for that belief-- make a behavior low-status in order to discourage it--- but there's a problem that it's false. There have been intelligent racists and high status racists, and I think the belief that racist is especially the province of the poor, stupid, and ill-educated has led to 'racist' being a much more explosive insult than it needs to be.
0ahartell8yI absolutely agree. In any case I should have said "racism" anyway, as I'm comparing the ideas, with one being seen generally as "held by many but ill informed" and the other being seen almost with incredulity.
0Ritalin8yCough... it could be worse... []

Matches my experience. Sucks.

Are humans capable of, collectively, keeping real and humorous/ironic racism separate? No, they are not. What South Park "kicked" off as an ironic commentary on racism is becoming actual racism.

See also Truffaut's famous dictum that there's no such thing as a true anti-war film (obligatory TVtropes warning).

And then there is Kurt Vonnegut's warning from Mother Night: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

1teageegeepea10yAnd I thought Jerry Cantrell was being original in "Give it a Name".
[-][anonymous]10y 4

Is there something about the ginger thing specifically that makes you think it's ironic or manufactured? Cartman on south park is very antisocial and racist in a classic sense. A recurring theme is his hatred of blacks, jews, women, gays...

Many Irish people have red hair. It's possible this is just the usual kind of racism.

5grouchymusicologist10yWell, the idea is that although Cartman qua character is unironically antisocial and racist, the intention of showing him behaving that way on a comedy show is supposed to be understood by viewers as ironic and not an endorsement by the show's creators of that behavior or viewpoint. OP is suggesting that ironic distancing in this regard is less possible than we like to think it is.
4Ritalin8yI know lots of kids that wouldn't even know to mock Jews if it weren't for Cartman. Seeing Cartman say the things he does is kind of like news media publicizing the latest life-threatening dangerous fad in the schoolyards; they make it seem more common than it is, and, therefore, make it possible to emulate. I've known kids have their vocablulary and modes of expression completely changed by South Park, in ways that made them seem incredibly rude and cruel by real-life, mainstream standards. It took me watching South Park to find out that they didn't mean to be especially hostile or anything, they were just aping a show where "fuck" and "asshole" carried about as much aggressiveness as a punctuation mark.
1MugaSofer8yIn fairness, the irony levels on South Park were not designed for children to appreciate or understand.
0Ritalin8yDoesn't stop them from loving it because of the toilet humour and the incessant swearing. Also, this is one of the reasons why I dislike irony; what's to stop you from replying to any critic "my level of recursive irony is one tier higher than yours; you just don't have the refinement in taste to truly grasp it". You can make millions with this all-explaining non-explanation. In fact, many modern artists did; it's the whole concept behind camp and kitsch. Campbell's Instant Tomato Soup indeed.
1MugaSofer8yCritiquing something based on quality is one thing; if your intended audience doesn't enjoy it then you have failed, no matter how much a small subset may love it "ironically". If you intended audience is adults, however, than inevitably your work is going to contain material that causes unintended effects when they watch it. I believe the standard example here is hardcore pornography - the problem isn't that it scars children's minds, it's that children's minds were exposed to it. In this particular case, the assumption was that viewers, as educated adults in a modern society, would be aware that racism was, y'know, wrong. It was optimized for such people, not for impressionable children.
2Ritalin8yWhat if it's the reverse, that your intended audience does enjoy it, as it should, it while a large majority the total audience that enjoys is unintended? What if the intended audience is expected to love it ironically, while the unintended one adores it sincerely and earnestly, taking it at face value? Have you failed? You have achieved your win condition; the people that you thought should like it, do like it. The humour in South Park is often, "ironically" or not, extremely immature and gross, (not to mention sharp, and original, and violent, and over-the-top, and accessible, and cruel), and thus appeals to children and teenagers. That's why that sort of humour is called juvenile. You want humour kids won't be interested in, make something like XKCD, or Discworld, or Portal, or understated stuff that requires subtlety and life experience to understand. The same is true for porn; kids are attracted to it, once they reach puberty, even though it was not optimized for their consumption. So what you've got to ask yourself is; "what are the sort of people who are liable to like the show, besides those for whom it is intended, and, knowing of their numbers and existence, should I make that show at all"? Why do you think Dave Chapelle cancelled the Chapelle Show? On the other hand, is there a point in not making this or that cultural product, if the "unintended audience" are going to generate something similar on their own? * Stop distributing alcohol and people will brew at home. * Stop distributing porn and children will masturbate to ads in Cosmo, National Geographic nudity, or even Liberty Leading The People [] I was raised in an Islamic country and we had no internet, and I can tell you, if worse came to worse, we used our imagination. * Stop making ironic racist jokes on TV that a lot of people are liable to take at face value, and the same peo
1Kindly8yWith an effort, I can imagine someone who objects to "accessible" humor as a matter of principle. But what could possibly be wrong with "original"? Edit: similarly, out of "alcohol", "porn", and "racism", one of the three is not like the others, i.e. it is actually bad.
2Ritalin8yI'm not listing things that are bad, I'm listing things that appeal to children. Children are attracted to some things that are objectionable, and they're attracted to some things that aren't. When you put all the attractive things together in a bundle, you get something that is very attractive, but which is complicated to value morally. Consequences can be difficult to predict, and they can be dire. As for your second part, I'm not listing things that I think are bad, I'm listing things that you can't ban because some people will go out of their way to make them anyway, especially if they're already used to them. I am somewhat confident that I could successfully argue, from a utilitarian standpoint, that alcohol and porn are bad (not "sinful" or "immoral" or "unacceptable" or "evil", but that they result in a net loss of happiness and productive activity in the societies where they are ill-regutlated), but that's not what this discussion is about. If you want to talk about that in more depth, please open a discussion on the open thread or send me a PM.
1MugaSofer8yAlcohol damages health and impairs judgement, causing sizable numbers of deaths every year. Much pornography is produced in ways that harm women, whether they are being physically abused or effectively raped in order to afford food etc.
1Kindly8yArguably both could be done without harming others, even if they are not currently done that way; but I don't want to get into this discussion (unfortunately, I also didn't want to leave you without a reply entirely). You do have a point that the difference I wanted to point out isn't actually clear-cut.
2MugaSofer8yRacism can also be done without harming others if it doesn't have anyone to be racist to and you're right, this is getting offtopic.
0whowhowho8yOr Yes Minister []
2Ritalin8yThat series is utterly brilliant and should be taught in English class at every school. Only slightly less awesome is The West Wing, though in a very different way. Either are much more relevant and topical than, say, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion or Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night Dream. You can't have a graveyard in a minefield... []
0Kawoomba8yIf only it didn't have one of those retarded laugh tracks ...
1Ritalin8yI thought ti was a live studio audience? Anyway, I feel it's rather judiciously used. Laugh tracks are not one of my peeve tropes.
0MugaSofer8yI was merely pointing out that the product works as intended. This does not alter the fact that it is harmful when misused, but it does provide some context.
3PhilGoetz10ySouth Park is usually ironic. Cartman's crusade against redheads is supposed to look silly, and to stand for other, more mainstream prejudices. On the Cheezburger network, it's self-consciously ironic. It's written by internet geeks pretending to be prejudiced against red-heads because they think it's a funny parody of other prejudices.
1David_Gerard10yThat's the hypothesis of its origin I've seen. It appears to have gone free-floating, though.

Wow. I suddenly understand the background of this song by Tim Minchin much better.

7CronoDAS10yI never realized that "ginger" and the N word were anagrams...
[-][anonymous]10y 3

There is apparently some basis for the hormone oxytocin increasing distrust of outsiders, including among racial lines. I've posted some of the results I found below:

This link requires you to have journal access:

I think it's likely that it's humorous in a similar way to the kind of jokes you ca... (read more)

A much older citation than the South Park episode:

Macavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin...


As far as I can tell, short jokes became less prevalent after Randy Newman's "Short People" had been around for a while. Assuming I saw an actual change and that the song had something to do with it, this still might not be a good guide to action-- Newman might be smarter about such things than the average satirist.

2PhilGoetz10yInteresting. One difference is that Randy Newman's song was about prejudice against short people. The South Park episode, and ginger-baiting on Demotivators or other humor websites, is, I think, about prejudice against blacks and other races. Its message condemns prejudice against blacks - not prejudice against red-heads.
1NancyLebovitz10yAnother difference is that the South Park show had a call to action, and "Short People" didn't.

I have a hard time believing that the linked articles demonstrate that humans are, collectively, unable to keep real and ironic racism separate. It seems more likely, to me, based on my experience with other people, that these are some isolated incidents and if it wasn't South Park, these people would latch on to anything and do something stupid.

I'd welcome some studies or something a little less anecdotal to change my mind.

[-][anonymous]8y 1

FWIW, that prejudice also existed in 19th-century Sicily.

All other points notwithstanding...regarding the "real thing" video you linked:

After watching, due to his erratic behavior and overstatement of his point, I began to rather strongly suspect that you either fell victim to an instance of Poe's law, or didn't watch the whole video. I went and found his youtube channel, "CopperCab" on youtube. His name is supposedly Michael Copper, obviously a pseudonym (his name actually containing the word "Copper" would be too fitting)

From seeing his other videos, I'm now certain that the col... (read more)

"Is combating racism a game of whack-a-mole, in which society invents new prejudices to replace the ones being taken away?" I didn't see any provided evidence/argument for causality.

One clue that you're going too far in your ironic humor is when you start finding the real thing funny.

I'm not actually sure that's the "real thing", at least in the sense you appear to mean it. His tone, as well as this more explicitly humourous video suggest that it's all at least a little tongue-in-cheek, although that certainly doesn't mean his message is irrelevant.

Anyway, I appreciate this post; I'll try and comment with something a little more cogent when I've got more time.