Can Black People Have Red Hair?

How many of us would be surprised if we saw a fair-toned red-haired ‘black’ individual? But the fact is that it happens a lot more often than you think it does. Genetics has time and again proved that race is simply a social construct.

Here, we’ll discuss the genetics of hair color, how red hair is inherited, and how an individual of black heritage can have stunning red hair adorning their scalp. Let’s talk science!

How Rare are Red Heads?

Redheads are pretty rare. In fact, only 1-2% of the human population is speculated to have red hair. That being said, this phenotype is pretty common for some geographical reasons.

Scotland house the most redheads in the world, followed by Ireland. Likewise, the red hair trait is relatively more common in northern and western Europe and central Russia.

Can Black People Have Red Hair?

Black people often feature beautiful dark black or brown afro hair. The genetics of this ethnicity often favors high eumelanin production, thus the pigmentation of hair and skin. Geographical and environmental factors are also believed also to influence pigmentation slightly.

Let’s come back to the question. Can black people have red hair? The answer is yes! Black people definitely can have red hair, and as a matter of fact, they pull off the hair color stunningly!

However, these occurrences are not as common. There are a few scientific explanations for the black ethnicity and red hair phenotype, which we will discuss later in this post.

The Genetics of Hair Color

Human genetics is beautifully complicated. Our hair color ranges from blonde to deep black with many variations in between. Like any other human phenotype, many genes play a role in determining our hair color.

The most studied and one of the major genes that control skin, eye, and hair color in humans is Melanocortin 1 Receptor (MC1R) gene. This gene is responsible for producing a protein called melanocortin 1 receptors. These receptors are located on melanocyte surfaces.

Upon binding to the receptor, alpha-Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone (α-MSH) induces a series of reactions that instructs melanocytes to produce melanin.

In case of loss of function of the MC1R gene, melanocytes favor Pheomelanin production. Other proteins, such as Agouti-signalling protein (ASIP), also play a role. ASIP binds to MC1R on the melanocyte surface, preventing the α-MSH induced Eumelanin production.

Red Hair Inheritance

If one of the parental genes has a red-hair MC1R gene, the result can be unpredictable. Their offspring might feature a diversity of hair colors depending upon which the parental gene overpowers each of them.

If the Pheomelanin production is overwhelmingly strong or if the red-hair MC1R proteins bind to the fully functioning receptor to cease the Eumelanin pathway, the individual will end up with red hair.

As we discussed above, other genes such as ASIP also play a role in this scenario. If ASIP protein sticks to the wild-type or fully functioning copy to inhibit Eumelanin production, the offspring will be red-haired.

Likewise, when both the parental MC1R gene copies are red-haired, the chances of the child being red-haired is highly likely.

However, there can be certain scenarios where a little of MC1R still remains. Although rare, an individual with two copies of red hair MC1R genes can also be brunette, brown, or black-haired.

Finally, it is also possible for two fully functioning MC1R genes to result in a red-haired phenotype. Other pigment genes, including ASIP, that reduce the effectiveness of these receptors are believed to play a major role in such scenarios.

How Does Melanin Determine Your Hair Color?

Melanin is the skin pigment that determines the color of your hair, eyes, and skin. It normally depends upon the type and the amount of melanin your melanocytes produce.

In order to understand the science behind your hair color you must know that there exist three types of melanin in your body.

Eumelanin, which can be black or brown, is responsible for giving black/brown color to your hair. The more these melanins, the darker your hair color.

On the other hand, Pheomelanin is responsible for pinkish coloring parts of your body. Red-haired people generally have an abundance of Pheomelanin with a relatively much lesser amount of Eumelanin produced in their bodies.

Finally, Neuromelanin is the type of melanin which is involved in controlling the colors of neurons. This melanin doesn’t partake in determining the phenotype of human hair.

How Can Black People Have Red Hair?

1.   Rufous Occulocutaneous Albinism

Rufous occulocutaneous albinism or Type-3 albinism is a type of albinism that affects black people.

The condition results in reddish-brown skin, ginger hair, and hazel/brown eye color. This type of albinism is relatively rare and is often selective to individuals from Southern Africa. This albinism type is relatively much milder than the other albinisms in terms of symptoms and vision abnormalities.

Mutation in Tyrosine-related Protein 1 (TRP-1) results in Rufous occulocutaneous albinism. This albinism inherits in an autosomal recessive pattern.

For this, we need to understand dominant and recessive alleles. The copy that determines the phenotype is called the dominant allele, whereas the recessive copy, despite having a different phenotype, stays silent.

If both the parental gene has one copy of the mutated allele, the child can be transmitted the defective genes from each side, thus, resulting in albinism.

Occulocutaneous albinism 2 (OCA-2) also affects individuals from black ethnicities. However, this albinism is characterised by fair skin with or without freckles and light hair ranging from blonde to light brown. OCA-2 is more prevalent in African communities than Rufous albinism.

2.   Mixed Ancestry

A child with a red-haired parent and a black parent also has the possibility of being born with red hair.

However, the majority of such babies are born fair-skinned and red-haired. People with black skin color with red hair are very rare, given how red hair indicates lower eumelanin production.

That being said, medium-toned or brown-skinned children of African heritage born out of interracial relationships are relatively common.

The child born out of such biracial relationships has red hair favoring the MC1R gene from one parent and probably a normal MC1R from another. Whichever allele dominates in this scenario wins.

Having said that, plenty of other genes also get their say in determining the hair color of the individual. Therefore, we cannot say with guarantee that every such individual will feature a red-hair.

Moreover, the red-haired ancestry can result in a baby being ginger despite both their parents having black hair. Red hair in offspring can also be inherited in a recessive pattern.

In the infamous ‘slave trade’ that happened centuries ago, the gene pool has diversified a lot. Many black descendants of such heritage might have recessive genes that favor light-skin and red-hair traits which they can pass on to their offspring.

If each of the parents has one recessive red-hair gene copy, the red hair trait has a good possibility of becoming dominant in the offspring. Human genetics is truly mesmerising, isn’t it?

Why is MC1R Diversity Minimal or Non-existent in African People?

People with equatorial African ancestry often have genes that favor Eumelanin production. This is because of the genetic phenomenon called ‘Negative Selection’.

Those individuals with random mutations that suppressed Eumelanin production or encouraged Pheomelanin synthesis were selected against.

But the major question is, why was Eumelanin production favored our early ancestors? Well, if you didn’t know, melanin simply doesn’t give a stunning chocolaty appearance but also has protective features.

Melanin prevents UV damage by absorbing the light before it can cause any damage to the cellular machinery. It also has antioxidant properties, which prevent reactive oxidants produced by UV damage from causing oxidative stress to the cells.

Our human ancestors first evolved in Africa, where the UV radiation was very high, and so was the risk of developing sun damage and skin cancers. In order to counter it, science believes that evolution most likely favored people with melanin-rich skin. Therefore, melanin gene polymorphisms are not as favored among black people as in people of other ethnicities.

However, the notion that fair-skin genes evolved from Eumelanin-favoring genes when humans started migrating has been debunked by a recent genetic study.

In fact, both the fair skin genes and dark-skin genes have been in the human genome for around 900,000 years, before the existence of modern humans.

Both of the genes are evolving at their own rate. However, it would be safe to assume that as humans migrated to areas with less harsh solar radiation, evolution probably became less strict regarding the Eumelanin expression, dark skin, and dark hair phenotype.

Summary

We hope we were able to give you enough explanation on how black people can have red hair. Genetics is as beautiful as it is perplexing.

What we’ve discussed in this post is not even a fraction of the information regarding the science behind hair color and ethnicities. Even years-long studies haven’t yet been able to grasp the concept of crystal-clear. We can only hope for more research and studies in the near future!

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