South Asian Redheads?

Lancelot, the playwright whose perspective Lauren Groff features in the first half of Fates and Furies,* is oddly speechless when he sees composer Leo Sen for the first time:

[W]hen Lancelot still couldn’t speak, the ginger boy said drily, ‘Expecting an Indian, weren’t we. I get that often. My father’s half Indian and looks it. His genes were steamrolled by my mother’s. On the other hand, my sister looks like she should be in a Bollywood film and nobody can believe we are related one iota.’

“Sen,” as the novel tells us, derives from the Sanskrit word for “army,” leading Lancelot to assume that Leo Sen would look South Asian, a group known for black hair rather than red.

South Asian American RedheadsAs it turns out, Leo is like my redheaded twin daughters, who are a quarter South Asian. I’m half Sri Lankan — and look it — but I did not pass that outward appearance onto my girls.

However, their sandy-haired, blue-eyed father’s genes did not “steamroll” mine.  Our daughters’ red hair — an autosomal recessive trait — comes as much from me as it does from him. Our girls received a copy of the MC1R gene from each of us. I received mine from my redheaded father, who is of mostly European ancestry, but the single copy resulted in little more than slightly reddish highlights in my otherwise off-black hair.

My husband’s surname did steamroll mine, though.** As a result, unlike Leo Sen, my daughters have an “appropriately” Irish-sounding last name to match their bonny red hair.

That doesn’t stop nosy strangers from gawking at our family. People often ask us about our relationship — “those can’t be your kids, right?” — resulting in uncomfortable interactions that I’m exploring in a light-hearted way with my children in Anusha of Prospect CornerIn our update to Anne of Green Gables, the main character’s ambivalence about her red hair stems from insecurity about her racial identity rather than from anti-ginger bias. [Anusha of Prospect Corner is out! For reviews & more information, find it on Goodreads & Amazon]

My daughters are only just beginning to explore what it means to be redheaded girls of a multiracial background in our part of America. To what extent will the way others perceive them impact how they perceive themselves?

My own racial identity has changed over the years. I felt much more “non-white” when I was in college, as many people reacted to 9/11 with fear and hostility towards anyone who looked like they could be of Middle Eastern descent. In law school, a place with few ethnic minorities, I didn’t feel “white” at all. Now, I often slip into saying I’m bi-racial, focusing on only the two biggest contributors to my genetic makeup, even though I would not be here but for my ancestors from two other continents.

All of this is to say that racial identity isn’t easy to define. As the Pew Research Center recently discussed in Who is Multiracial? Depends on How You Ask:

Racial identity is far from a straightforward concept, and when multiple strands of identity come together this has the potential to increase the complexity. An individual’s racial self-identity may take into account a range of factors beyond genealogy, including family ties, physical appearance, culture and how others perceive them. In other words, being multiracial is more than just a straightforward summation of the races in an individual’s family tree.

To figure out how to best capture this complexity, Pew tested six different ways of defining a population of multiracial individuals to survey. The way the question was asked had a large impact on the percentage of respondents who said that they were mixed-race.

With the standard two-question measure (similar to what the Census currently uses), which asks the respondent to choose one or more races with a separate question for Hispanic ethnicity, only 3.7% of the population identified themselves as multiracial. Meanwhile, when the researchers asked respondents to identify whether their grandparents were of “some other race or origin” different from their own, the mixed-race population grew to 16.6%.

I wonder how my own children will fill out these types of forms when they’re older. My hope is that they will see their identity broadly, basing it on more than just their outward appearance. There is more to racial identity than meets the eye.


*To see Mr. AMB’s thoughts on Fates and Furies–and his review of its reviews–check out: Fates and Furies (What On Earth Is Going On With Its Reviews?).

**Ah, Patriarchy.

***Image above: My little S in 2010.  This is what my twins look like now:

Kids enjoying Kindles


  1. I’m biracial-Mexican (Mom), Italian, & Danish (Dad). I grew up being picked on and bullied because I didn’t “look” Mexican, didn’t tan, had green eyes, and a “white” last name. They wouldn’t let me join any of the Latino groups in college, telling me they were full-but then a friend who looked Mexican that they weren’t. It can be hard not looking what people expect-but I’d never give it up as I got an experience into two different cultures that most people never get to experience.

    1. Yes, it can be hard looking different from what people expect. It’s terrible that you were bullied because of it. Most people assume I’m South Asian because of my appearance, but they never expect me to have ties to Sri Lanka, and of course, no one expects my red-headed children to be anything other than white. Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your experiences.

  2. Hi, I came across your post because I am half Indian and my two daughters have red hair also. I was looking to find whether this is a very unusual trait. Similar to you, I have dark brown hair which shines with red highlights in the sunlight, but I never dreamed I would have red haired children. My youngest looks a little like your girls with her dark eyes, and my eldest has lighter skin and hair and green eyes. Thank you for sharing the story of your heritage and such lovely photos!

    1. Hi Sonia- It’s nice to hear about your family! I knew I could have redheaded children because my father and my husband’s brother have red hair (so the genes are on both sides)–but I didn’t think it was likely. My twins are identical, and their hair is very red. My youngest has slightly darker hair, but most people call it red too, especially in the summer. All three have very dark eyes, like mine.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Funny how people think this is not an important a topic as it really is. Blowing this away by saying we are all one race etc is not giving each of us a chance to find value in who we are and where we came from. I love that my identity is half of 2 ethnicities. But better yet-,that each of them is so culturally different yet mych value comes from both! Diversity- the key to so much good.

  4. A friend of mine spent a lot of time tracing his family’s genealogy. Intellectually, I suppose it’s interesting to find out you’re related to Merovingians X-number of generations back on your mother’s side, but it has no impact on who you are or how you live your life. Your ancestry may, as you pointed out, have an impact on how people treat you, based on your looks and the current political climate, but I wish we as a culture could get past this. Things would be so much better if what mattered was the kind of person you are, not the color of your hair or skin.

    P.S. I, too, love their T-shirts. 🙂

  5. Your girls have such beautiful red hair. Very unusual! From my husband’s Welsh background, one of my daughters has strands of red hair in her Anglo-Chinese make-up, which she is very proud of.
    The girls tend to go for Mixed – Other Asian on forms, which is such a prosaic option.

  6. I am as uni-racial as may be, with the only oddness being my father was a Canadian while my mother was an American. Nothing to do with ethnicity at all. I’ve always wished to have a more varied past, but it was always unlikely given where and when I was born. I marvel at the complexity of your daughters’ mixture, but they are beautiful kids and that should be enough. Their shirts are wonderful, and I love that they break the rule of my childhood that redheads should not wear pink! PFFFT! I say to that rule!

    1. Thank you! I love the empowering message on those shirts.

      Have you ever taken a genetic test? I know several people who have learned that their backgrounds are more varied than they thought (including my Dad, who actually has some African heritage our family didn’t know about).

  7. Genetics are funny that way. My roommate’s mother’s family is Hawaiian. Every single one of her four siblings looks the part, but my poor roommate looks more like her dad – short and very white. Only her dark hair and eyes help her look the part!

    Another great post, as always!

  8. This is so interesting! My grandmother was Anglo-Indian, and my auntie looks like her (i.e. like a fair Indian), but my grandfather was Welsh so my mother has very pale skin. When they were little people used to see my mother and aunt with my grandmother, and assume that my mother was a friend! And my sister and I are very fair, with dark blonde hair (our father is English). I find this sort of stuff fascinating, and it’s great to see it represented here. And the question of how to define ‘multiracial’ is very interesting – I’d like to read more about it. Thank you for a great post!

    1. How interesting! If I’m reading your description correctly, it sounds like your Indian heritage is on your mother’s side through her mother. If it continues down the maternal line, then your mitochondrial DNA would be from South Asian ancestors (as it is for my redheaded girls). For some reason, I like knowing that about myself and my children–not that it really matters in any way. Have you ever seen Who Do You Think You Are? Spoiler Alert: The Billy Connelly episode traces Indian heritage he didn’t know he had. It was fascinating. Thanks for stopping by!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s