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Unicorn Baby: A Lesson in Ginger Genetics


The Ups, Downs and Sideways of Working Motherhood

Unicorn Baby: A Lesson in Ginger Genetics

Alex Steinman

Just two MC1R carriers in love.

Just two MC1R carriers in love.

There was a time when my husband and I thought our children would be just like me (see #Gingerbaby: An Origin Story). Short, loud brown-skinned babies with tiny afros and an attitude. From our physical appearances, my genes are supposed to dominate in every way possible. But the story is more complicated than that.

My mom and dad (aren't they cute?)

My mom and dad (aren't they cute?)

I'm mixed, so anything goes.

My maternal grandfather was adopted, and we don't know a lot about his ancestry. My maternal grandmother's side is Danish and Scandinavian. My mom has olive skin and has an affinity for pasta and red wine, so we like to say she's Italian. My father is African American with family members that have both dark and light skin.

When my son was born, we were beyond shocked to see his red hair and light skin. Not only are my genes supposed to crush Matt's red-headed, fair-skinned genes, but I grew him for 10 months. The least the kid could do is look like me! Genetically though, he is like me. You see, both parents have to have the MC1R gene in order to make a ginger child. This is so rare, it's estimated only 1-2% of the world's population has red hair. My kid is unicorn status.

There's an interesting article from Vicebuzzing around the internet about the MC1R gene, its origins in Europe and its migration to people with darker skin. In regards to the MC1R gene in people of color, the article says, "Red hair and freckles is the likely result of the historical interactions between Europeans and Africans in the formation of the Caribbean populations—most notably with Brits, as the Spanish and Portuguese went to South America."

Even more interesting, there's a photographer in the UK, Michelle Marshall, who has dedicated a whole project to documenting gingers of color. People have a fascination with race, skin color and hair textures. We inadvertently put each other into boxes to help make sense of the world, but our population is so blended, conventional wisdom is being tested and challenged more every day.

As one of a few students of color in my elementary school, I was (and still am) asked a lot of questions- Was I adopted? Is this my real hair? How did I get so white? Is my dad an athlete? I take most of these as general curiosity and don't get offended easily. I've never been opposed to being the conversation starter to help educate those around me.

I hope Matt and I are prepared to shepherd our #gingerbaby through the funny and the ignorant, the awkward and the insulting. He may not look exactly like me, but I hope I've passed along some tough skin, a sense of humor and compassion for those around him.