For years we, as a people, have been relying on colors to label, differentiate, code, and give relevance to things. With the recent Paula Deen fiasco, I found myself contemplating this behavior that we have been practicing, since the dawn of time. Although, Paula’s offense was not about a color label, but more so about a racial label, it could all be counted as the same thing.
While I find it quite surprising that Ms. Deen would say such things, publicly, I am not at all surprised that it was said. Most people have said a derogatory term or two about another race, religion, or culture at one time or another, but I think people were not expecting it to come from “America’s Grandma,” as I referred to her.
Paula Deen, as far as I can tell, is not a racist. She may have used some off-color remarks (no pun intended) due to her ignorance and insensitivity to what most would perceive as racism, but nothing Paula Deen has ever done, especially in the manner in which she did it, came off as racist- in the true meaning of the word. [Definition of racist]
When I think of a racist, in my mind I see a member of a white supremacy group who eats, sleeps, and breathes hatred towards those who are not white. You can feel the hatred and malice every time he says the “N” word or refers to someone of a different race. With Paula, I immediately heard a hint of naiveté with a pinch of obliviousness and surmised that she may need a little racial sensitivity training. “Racist” as it has been used as of late, is a little harsh and does not fit this situation.
But I digress. I am writing about color labels…Why is it that we label things by color? Why do we automatically assume that someone who is wearing a red polo shirt with khaki pants works at Target, no matter where we seem them? Why do we assume a person wearing a burgundy sports jacket in front of a club is the valet guy? He could be a semi-stylish man attempting to get his “swag on.” Why is the lady at the restaurant with a white button down shirt and black pants mistaken for the waitress?
On the same note, when a theater goes black, why do we all of a sudden stop talking and fix our gaze upon the stage? Why do red strobe lights flashing in the window of a seedy establishment mean sex can be exchanged for cash all night long?
We have been trained to see color. We are programmed to react to it. Every color has a denotation within the context of its environment. Sometimes those color codes translate to skin tone. We don’t see a man over there on the corner, we see a white man. We don’t see a woman in the pool, we see a brown woman. Color is the first descriptor that comes to mind when we are attempting to point things out.
This all begins at childhood. My son, who’s five years old, incessantly refers to me as “yellow.” His dad is “black” and he and his brother are “brown.” He thinks being brown is better (in a light-hearted way), at least within the confines of our home, simply because that’s what he is. Could it be, that is why some people of certain races believe the same, but on a whole other level?
Our affliction with color (as it relates to skin tone) will never change, but we have to decide if the labels we give others are the labels they want to have.
Just be careful what you call me and I’ll be cognizant of what I answer to.
*Photo courtesy of unitedblackamerica.com