I saw the online headline a few days ago and did a mental double-take.
“Science Says That Redheads Are Super Resilient People!”
Then I clicked on the link to the source story.
“Scientific Research Shows Redheads Are Actually Genetic Superheros.”
I’ve always loved science. But where were you folks when I was being called carrottop and fruit by kids who’d chant “better dead than red” and by teens who once stuffed me in a garbage can in high school. (Though, in my defense, they only got me in up to my shoulders; my head was always above the rim. Honest.)
It would have been great to throw that back at Charley and Tony and all my tormentors. Hey, I’m a super-resilient genetic superhero! Though I can guess at their likely response: More insults and the resumption of stuffing.
Being a member of a tressed minority — redheads are 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population — was harder as a child. No one remarks much on my red (rapidly turning white) hair these days. But I came through relatively unscathed, with no lasting psychological scars of which I am aware.
I always was secretly proud of being different. So seeing science step up to the plate with backing provoked a grin. Who knew redheads have been studied at places like McGill University, Boston University and the University of Oslo? (The Norwegians are never wrong, right?)
Redheads, it turns out, have higher pain thresholds, 25 percent more than other hues. We’re harder to sedate; you need more anesthesia to put us under. We have more sensitivity to temperature, and we create more vitamin D when we’re outdoors. Then again, we’re a lot more susceptible to sunburn and are as much as 100 times more likely to develop skin cancer.
One researcher found redheads have reduced levels of adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin, which makes us more likely to respond to threats with negotiations, not fisticuffs. (If you stop stuffing me in the garbage can, I’ll do your geometry homework.) We’re apparently overrepresented in math, science, logic and comedy and underrepresented in sports and the military.
But redheads rank considerably lower than superheroes in folklore and superstition. We’ve been loathed and feared, called temptresses and witches, served as metaphors for mystery and guile, and stood as omens of bad luck.
The ancient Greeks thought we became vampires when we died, and Aristotle supposedly impugned our character, which hurts a little coming from the father of the field of logic. But Socrates was a redhead, so Aristotle probably was just jealous.
“There was never a saint with red hair,” says an old Russian proverb. But it’s unclear whether those early Reds (hah!) were referring to churchly saints or just the generally well-behaved.
When you’re a redhead, you know the infamous “Ginger Kids” episode on “South Park” that featured an anti-redhead rant and that supposedly inspired “Kick a Ginger Kid” days at schools in Canada and England where redheads actually were hurt.
Then you do a little research and you find redheads have support websites, worldwide festivals and parades, and T-shirts celebrating their redness.
And you put it all together — the traits you supposedly have, the things people say about you and do to you, the beliefs they hold. And you look at your life, and the lives of your redheaded sister and formerly redheaded father. And you see the truth.
For all the ways we identify and classify people as this or that group or subgroup, what you are is not who you are. And what you are matters much less than what you do with that.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.