Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When is a color racially offensive?

The recent controversy surrounding the aboriginal costumes worn by Russian ice dancers Domnina and Shabalin raises questions of cultural theft, authenticity of the steps, and appropriate costumes. Some Australian aboriginal leaders have claimed that the pair’s brown-toned costumes adorned with leaves and white aboriginal-style markings were offensive and far from authentic. On the other hand, the Russian duo’s coach explained that the term "aboriginal" translates from Latin language and means "from the beginning" and that they tried to represent a picture of the time when aboriginal people were in the world - with no reference to any country or custom. Nevertheless, in spite of changing the hue of their original costumes from a dark brown (intended to make their skins look darker) to a paler shade, which better matched the Russians' natural skin tone, the controversy still rages.

This inspires me to write about the topic of "color racism" – something that I’ve been pondering ever since reading that the word "negro" is used on the 2010 U.S. Census. From a historical perspective and my experiences living in the South, it’s an obsolete and offensive word that many African Americans associate with segregation and a regrettable chapter of American history. My outrage mellowed a little after learning that the census box includes all 3 racial identifiers – black, African American, negro - all placed next to each other and next to the same check box. Census officials explained that some older African Americans identify themselves that way and they're trying to be inclusive. If I take their word for it, I’d have to put this to rest. In this case, how you define yourself is subjective.

An interesting contrast is the color term "flesh" when it’s used as a synonym for a light color. Crayola got the message back in 1962 and changed the name to peach (recognizing that not everyone's flesh is the same shade). In spite of this, a recent AP story described Michelle Obama’s dress as "a gleaming silver-sequined, flesh-colored gown." The writer - or someone - evidently got the memo and changed "flesh" to "cream" in later versions of the story. Source

Two weeks ago, yellow made the news. No one can justify naming the train route in the Asian community the "Yellow Line" – as was the case in Atlanta, Georgia. Although transit officials claimed that naming it the "yellow line" was part of color-coding the entire transit systems by using primary colors, this was racially insensitive and quite different from the census example. Yellow has never been used as a racial identifier for Asians. It is used as an offensive racial slur and it also carries historical baggage that can’t be ignored. After considerable protest, the route was changed to "Gold. "

A web site included this comment on the Atlanta situation: "It's becoming a sad, sad world when some find names of colors racial and the powers that be bow down to them."

What do you think?

By the way, green is just a color … not a virtue.

Friday, February 12, 2010

There’s More Than Love at the Heart of Red

"Monkey Butt Red" and "Flaming Fuchsia" made the news recently - at least in the automotive industry. These are the names of colors created by Toyota and Dodge for the debut of their elite sports cars. Consider the possibility that these colors and their names were intended to generate a lot of press.

In the spirit of Valentines Day, the colors red and fuchsia (aka magenta, hot pink) generated considerable excitement in other arenas in the past year. Here’s some recent news about these two loving colors:

1. Scientists found that red seems to improve attention to detail while blue sparks creativity.

2. Marine biologists discovered that a lot of fish in the sea glow a fluorescent red. This is startling news because scientists believed that fish don’t see red very well or not at all because red light does not penetrate below a depth of 30 feet. Why develop a skill that you will never be able to use?

3. Red is the #1 color in advertising design.

4. Companies see red over rights to the color magenta.

5. When 877 members of USA TODAY's CEO panel took an online personality color test, they were three times more likely to favor magenta than the public at large, three times less likely to select red, and 3 times less likely to choose yellow.

6. India's "pink panties" revolution for freedom from Indian women's sexual prisons begins.

This Valentine's Day, think about your red. What does the color mean to you? Remember that color is like sex. It's mysterious. It's unknowable. No two people see the same thing. No two people feel the same thing.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Shattering a Colorblind View of the Past

For nearly two centuries, scholars have been arguing that beige and white were not the true colors of antiquity. The Parthenon in Athens and the Forum in Rome might have been almost gaudy. Unfortunately, such ideas have never influenced Hollywood or many experts. For example, in "Gladiator," when Russell Crowe strides down the streets of ancient Rome, circa A.D. 180, he's backed up by the proper complement of white marble. In almost every view of the past, textbooks included, the ancient world comes off as monochrome.

A flood of recent exhibitions has put color back into the vocabulary of antiquity. Last year, "Gods in Color" in Boston and "The Color of Life" exhibition at the Getty featured multi-colored sculptural masterpieces from the Greek and Roman eras.

However, not all scholars are pleased. Of note, Fabio Barry, an art historian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is not overly fond of the Prima Porta sculpture's colored reconstruction. "Can you imagine the family-values, back-to-basics, republican emperor Augustus . . . represented by something that looks like a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi?" raves Barry, an expert on the history of marble. He insists that the Romans cherished the whiteness of fine marble as an important symbol of light and purity.

On the other hand, Getty Curator Kenneth Lapatin "For the Greeks it was all about mimesis," says, using the Greek word for realistic imitation. Beauty depended on it.

A week ago, scientists revealed something else that shatters our preconceived notions about the drab and dinghy colors of an even more distant past. A team of British and Chinese scientists found evidence that a dinosaur that lived about 125 million years ago had a feathered mohawk with orange-brown bristly feathers around its tail. By examining and comparing tiny structures (melanins) in the feathers, they found the color associated with red-brown. Source

While this colorful development in the lost world of dinosaurs is quite exciting, it will still be left up to our imaginations to create the colors of popular dinosaurs, like Tyrannosaurus rex - at least for now.

As for antiquity, we also need help visualizing and accepting a colored world of architecture and sculpture.

Perhaps this century will colorize the past in amazing ways.