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.