It’s about 9 pm on a Thursday night, and you’re on a suburban Melbourne train to the city. You’re a 31-year-old man, a bit short but otherwise fully grown, having a fine conversation with a woman in a wonderful coat. Ideally, you could stand up straighter and you’ve probably got a bit of a crooked smile, but you’re ok. You do have a lovely beard, if you say so yourself. Sometimes even in blog posts.
There are about ten other people in the train carriage that you can see, all within a decade or so of your vintage. An obnoxious, attention-seeking and somewhat deranged laugh erupts from a few rows behind you, and like plastic or the freshness of supermarket bread, it endures for too long to be trusted. A charge of nervous energy enlivens the air as the same confirmation bias sprouts simultaneously in everyone’s mind: bloody hell, why always in my carriage?
It was the kind of laugh that announced to everyone that they were about to witness an “incident”, the horse drawing the cart in which was sitting the Bad Thing About To Happen. A bit like in disaster movies when at first all you can see is a screaming stampede and a Mexican wave of somersaulting vehicles, but you know that just behind the tall buildings something is doing a whole lot of mass-murdering and it’s coming your way. Or like how you suppøsedly smel berning toest jusT beforrr hAv!ng ä stR0qqqqqqqqqqqque.
No one was having a stroke though, and nor did anyone react to the laughter. Conversations resumed and thumbs returned to tickling phone screens, but not for long; the scene was soon repeated. Same laugh, same nervous energy, same lack of response. Naturally this wouldn’t suffice for the antagonist, so they opted to abruptly end the foreplay and jump straight to the action by screaming directly at the object of their spite:
You probably thought that was a punchline, right? Yes, I’ve dropped the cheap you-as-me rhetorical device now and I am talking to you there, reader, with those lovely eyes and sparkling intellect and thanksforclickingmylinkpleasecomeagain. I understand why you would think it was a punchline, given the capitalisation, the repeated As, the exclamation mark; it just looks like one. And of course that’s what you’ve been primed to expect, as there have been so many jokes packed in already (come now, don’t roll those eyes at that, I just complimented them ten seconds ago!).
But alas no, not a joke. And worse, it was just the beginning of what became the most genuinely hate-filled and sustained abuse I’ve ever received due to the colour of my hair (ranga = orangutan = red/ginger hair, for the uninitiated), and that is including high school. Back then it was just part of the deal – you go to school, people make fun of you, you leave school, you all grow up, and it stops. Right? I thought that’s how it would work. I never envisaged I’d be an adult male and still enduring schoolboy taunts about my hair. It’s just so…tiresome.
I’ve been called all sorts of things: ranga, copper top, carrot top, big red, Irish, Scotch, Ed Sheeran, red sack, red nuts, ginger nut, blood nut, fanta pants, fire crotch. I’ve been standing at parties and had people publicly ask me if I have red pubic hair; I’ve had it yelled at me from cars that I should’ve been aborted; I’ve been told I look like shit and nothing can be done about it and that I should kill myself (this train guy).
Do you notice the main theme of the names though? Quite a fascination with a redhead’s groin, isn’t there? It doesn’t take much insight to figure out why men (it’s men 99% of the time) would make this the focus of the name-calling: it’s meant to publicly humiliate and emasculate, to eliminate any sexual threat the redhead may have posed. The train guy didn’t use these nuts-based names, but it’s telling that as my female colleague and I left the train he called out ‘enjoy the sex’, as if his job of rendering me impotent was complete. Men, dammit. That’s some seriously primitive bullshit.
I’m not writing this with a particular agenda to alert you to the existence of gingerism, or to elicit pity or compassion or something. Yuck, no. I hate even using the word victim for its implication of ceded agency and forced submission and I resent that it can apply to me. Plus I’m well aware that if you were going to be born with a trait that society was going to prejudice, you could do much worse than having red hair. It’s unlikely that I would be refused employment based on my hair; I won’t earn 16% less than people with other hair colours; and my CV won’t be discarded at sight simply because of my name. Still, judging by Train Guy’s angry words, it seems likely that I may suffer violence because of it at some stage.
And I thought a lot about violence in the 24 hours afterwards, 24 hours in which I was like a failed soufflé, a kite on a windless day, a stove with no flame. Once upon a time, if someone publicly provoked you in this way, notions of ‘honour’ dictated that you had to retaliate, to defend yourself. If you didn’t, you lost that honour, along with your self-respect and social standing, at least until such time as you or your descendants could exact revenge and regain it. This is still prevalent in many parts of the world I’m sure, but in our Western society today, violence is no longer a social norm or an accepted mode of conflict resolution, and of course I think this is a good thing. This half-remembered quote I read somewhere once does seem to make sense: There is no situation that violence won’t make worse.
But what this means is that for the antagonist, the provocateur – so decrepit of spirit that abusing a stranger in public is a salve to their wounds – they have nothing to lose. It all falls on the victim, the innocent pedestrian who happened to be walking under the window as the slop bucket was emptied and who now suddenly finds themselves covered in someone else’s shit. It shouldn’t be theirs to clean up. Train Guy had headphones in his ears, so whenever I spoke to him he simply yelled can’t hear ya mate, got headphones in, mate. As far as effective bullying goes, it was a brilliant move. I couldn’t engage with him, ask him why he hated me so, or even simply abuse him back. And yes, of course I tried.
So I had to just sit there and be debased in public, the only defence I had – words – rendered useless. My friend tried as well (if you read this, thank you again), but she was as easily rebuffed by the headphone ploy as I was. The other passengers did what you and I and all of us have done in similar situations: became entirely engrossed by a fleck on the floor and diverted all their attention to pondering it. This is no criticism, for what could they have done? Train Guy – just plain crazy or jacked up on ice or something, who knows – had what none of us possessed: a true threat of violence. We were all powerless.
If you’ve ever been the victim of bullying like this you’ll understand what I’m about to say: what it feels like is a sensation that you are literally diminishing, in real time, a mushroom flung into a pan that starts to shrink before everyone’s eyes. And it feels like what you lose is gone forever; you can’t reconstitute it or immerse it in water overnight for the miracle of osmosis to resurrect. No, it’s more like your soul is a spoon bent back and forth, back and forth, weakening with each attempt to go back to normal. You – for no reason other than the accident of your gender or hair or skin colour or sexuality or whatever makes you different – have been singled out in public and had someone’s grubby hands pry open your jaws and stick a tab of you deserve this poison on the back of your tongue. In the shock of their assault and the lack of suitable defensive options, you’ve had no choice but to swallow.
It’s this that makes me so mad about bullies. Even the term bully pisses me off, with its diminutive ending, cutesy-ing up a word that actually encapsulates racists, homophobes, sexists, bigots and the politicians that want to amend the Racial Discrimination Act, with all their rhetoric about people being able to ‘choose’ to not be insulted or offended by hate speech. To you, I say:
Seriously, FUCK. YOU. I’m really screaming at you all, from deep in my long-frustrated gut. I’ve had enough; the world doesn’t belong to you, and it’s time for you to give it back.
Because as the victim, not only can I not walk straight over to that train guy and punch him in the face, but it’s been made my responsibility, my burden, over the ensuing days, to rationalise away the damage, to try to make myself not feel anxiety around packs of strangers on the street at night or when I walk past a car at a set of traffic lights. It’s my burden to patch the wounds, to take the high road, to ignore it when I walk into a café or pub and overhear people make jokes about the colour of my hair, jokes that still aren’t funny after hearing them for twenty years. It’s my burden to forget the look of pity that had invaded the back of my friend’s eyes as she wonderfully and deftly continued our conversation in the face of his aggression. Because you know what? The train guy was successful – he had rendered me impotent, powerless and cut off at the red-pubed bollocks everyone is always wondering about.
It’s utter bullshit that I have to perform this re-inflation of myself because of some prick on a train, and it’s utter bullshit that I’ve been doing it since high school and will have to keep on doing it. It’s bullshit that you’ve had to do it for whatever makes you ‘other’, too. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words will do lasting damage where plaster casts and anti-inflammatory gels cannot reach.
So I climb onto my soapbox here, use my freckled hands to grip the old ideal that the pen is mightier than the sword and seek my own catharsis. I’m no Braveheart version of William Wallace so I doubt I will one day inspire a thousand people to lift up their kilts in defiance of bullies, metaphorically or otherwise, but perhaps it’s enough for now to have written this rant, to give myself reason to stand up a little bit straighter and flash my wonky teeth in a crooked smile.
It’s been hard enough to change my own behaviour over the years, I can’t really hope to change anyone else’s. So I’ll just say this, to myself more than to you, ol’ pretty eyes (but thanks for getting this far with me today): I’m a teetotal vegan with a congenital heart defect of 0.5-2% prevalence, the valve of a pig, an epic scar, and red hair, like 1-2% of the world’s population. Basically, I’m a fucking unicorn. A very white unicorn with a red mane and a preference for moonlight, but still a damn unicorn.
So if you see one on a train, don’t abuse it. Go and pet it, give it a hug, stroke its nose. You never know, we might actually have magical healing powers.