One day, I was walking through the park with my son when a man on a bike yelled, “Look at that carrot top!” I would have told him carrot tops are green if he hadn’t sped by so fast.
But even if he had heard me, my retort would probably have gone over as well as it did when I used it in elementary school, which is to say, not at all.
Every day out with my son means more fly-by commentary on his gorgeous curly red hair. There are plenty of rude and thoughtless examples to choose from. He’ll be feisty! That redhead’s going to be trouble. They have no souls, you know. But the worst comment by far is the one masquerading as a question: “Where did he get that red hair?”
My own tresses, while not the same fiery shade as my son’s, were red enough to warrant much teasing in junior high. So, at first, whenever the three of us were stopped to ask about my son’s hair, my husband would take a pointed look at my hair.
That stopped no one, so my husband, who has dark black hair, tried shrugging it off: “Me, obviously.”
That, of course, also failed to silence any questioners, so my husband taught mini lessons in genetics: “The long arm of chromosome 16.” I offered my more generous version: “Both of us. It’s actually a recessive gene.”
The question kept coming, so I offered familial explanations: “It’s the same color as my mom’s was when she was little. He looks just like her baby photos!”
This last one has worked reasonably well for us because it seems to answer the question people are really asking, even if they don’t know it. They have to figure us out. They have to explain where the boy came from, because surely, it can’t be from his parents whose hair doesn’t look like his.
Thus far, all of these responses have been unsatisfying. I prefer not to vouch for my son’s hair by offering a family hair color history. I prefer not to teach genetics while also trying to get a 3-year-old through the grocery store. I fantasize about just answering “my lover” and walking away, but while that answer would be so satisfying to me, it would not teach my child anything useful about how to interact in the world.
I think my responses feel unsatisfying because I’m not the one who should be responding. In Red: A History of the Redhead, Jackie Colliss Harvey identifies the real problem with the constant redhead commentary: “Growing up as a redhead, it sometimes felt as if the last person my red hair belonged to was me — the person from whose scalp it sprang.”
The commenters are never talking to my son. They’re talking about him. When people speed past calling him carrot top, when people joke that he has no soul, when people call him a ginger without realizing that’s an insult in many cultures, when people, unknowingly or not, question his parentage, they are all acting as though my son isn’t there.
If all of those commenters were talking to my son, they could just say, “I love your curly red hair.” But I can’t think of a single person outside of our family who has offered this compliment to my son.
Now that he is old enough to carry on a conversation, I’ve been hanging back and letting my son speak for himself. His response is proof that kids are more creative than their parents: “No, it’s green.” Depending on his mood, and the number of times he’s been asked the question that day, the intonation runs from playful to snarling.
It’s the perfect answer, as it loudly asserts that he is a person and people will have to engage with him. Better yet, it turns the constant barrage of questions into a game.
Most questioners react quickly and join in: “Yes, it’s a lovely green color.” His answer of choice has led a couple of completely clueless commenters to whisper to me about possible colorblindness, a particularly hilarious comment since if they followed us around the store they’d hear my son yelling out the colors of everything we see.
But my son quickly sets them straight by telling them his hair is now blue.