“White people are neither literally nor symbolically white. We are not the colour of snow or bleached linen, nor are we uniquely virtuous and pure. Yet images of white people are recognizable by virtue of colour.”
—Richard Dyer, White, 1997
As a child, I loved colors—from my first set of Crayolas, eight fat sticks of red-orange-yellow-green-blue-purple-brown-black—to the delicious array of 48 shades and hues in the big boxed set, with names like Burnt Sienna and Midnight Blue. These colors included “Flesh,” a pinkish cream very convenient for coloring faces. It didn’t occur to me until I was working in the art room of an elementary school in the late 1960s, that there might be some children for whom the color “Flesh” did not work. (In fact, Binney-Clark, the maker of Crayolas, changed the “Flesh” crayon to “Peach” in 1962.) It was also fascinating to learn about color in science class—the spectrum of the rainbow, the luminosity of a prism. How black and white were not in the rainbow because black was “no color”—the absence of color—and white was “all colors”—but strangely appeared to be no color.
I also learned the colors of the four races of people: red, yellow, white, and black. Each group was from a different part of the world originally—red from America, yellow from Asia, white from Europe and black from Africa—and together they made up the whole of the human race. I pictured these colors in my mind as a circle divided into four, each quadrant an equal part of the whole. It was a very satisfying image.
I was quite young when I first saw a black person in real life (a “Negro” as they were called then). I was surprised that he wasn’t really black, but dark brown. American Indians, I discovered, weren’t red, they also were brown. “Oriental” people, who were supposed to be yellow, were not at all. Some of my friends were very tan. Pointing to my densely freckled, sunburned arm, I joked that I wasn’t white, I was pink with brown spots. The whole idea of races being colors was only symbolic, I realized. Still, I believed the categories were real and meant something.
But what did they mean? In the 1950s, growing up in Vermont in a white liberal family, the concept was pretty abstract and not associated with people I knew. Race seemed to be some combination of biological and geographic factors. People were born as a particular race and most people in certain parts of the world were of a particular race. I knew I was White or that weird word—“Caucasian.”
There were also other associations with color, particularly black and white. The white knight was the good knight, the black knight was the bad one. The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry wore white hats while the bad guys they bested wore black hats. White was pure and good, black was evil, although the devil was red. There was black magic practiced by wicked witches who wore black robes and pointed hats, and white magic practiced by good witches like Glinda in the Wizard of Oz, who really looked more like a fairy princess. The good witches didn’t seem all that interesting to me, but I always tried to be good in real life. I certainly wasn’t going to be the “black sheep” in the family, although I always felt sympathy for those characters in books.
I don’t remember what I read in school specifically about racial categories. But there is a lineage of what had been taught to my parents and my parents’ parents—the public school curriculum. A nineteenth century schoolbook, discovered in my family archives, lays out a grade school curriculum for teachers.
From Elementary Course in Geography, by William Swinton, 1875
In Section IV, “Man on the Earth,” the number of “races of men” is given as five. The teacher explains “that these various races do not all live in the same manner, and are not equally intelligent or powerful. When races differ in regard to their way of living and their intelligence, we say that they differ in civilization.” There follows an almost catechism-like series of questions and answers, with illustrations of each race:
While this overtly racist text would never be taught in schools today, I can see and feel how the attitudes are still alive under the surface, in our collective conditioning, in myself. Today, we know that the concept of race is not based in genetics, but is a social construct. The character attributes of different races were assigned. By whom? By white people, “scientists” who viewed the world from within their own social context. Who viewed themselves as “the most highly civilized race” and therefore qualified to define other races. The repercussions of this pervade our institutions, our relationships with each other, and our unconscious minds. Historically, white people have decided who gets to be white, and that has changed over time. The “attributes” also change—for example, the stereotype of Muslims (or anyone wearing a turban) as terrorists since 9/11.
There is so much to say about this 1875 text! How being Christian is a mark of being “civilized.” Which peoples are included here and which ones are not. How the historical context in which it was written (Civil War Reconstruction, “manifest destiny” in settling the American West, publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, etc.) shaped its views.
But to bring it into the present, how do we teach children about race, ethnicity and what color means today? We know children notice differences at age three or four, and skin color is one marker they perceive. In a way, it’s easier to talk about skin color—see The Colors of Us, recommended by friends raising two white children—than about the much more complex subject of race and what it means. Even more challenging is talking about white as an identity. Because white on the spectrum is considered a neutral color, when applied to race, whiteness easily signifies a social group that sees itself as “normal” or simply “human.” Visible to others, invisible to ourselves. As long as whiteness remains invisible, we will not be aware that we are looking through a lens that colors everything we see.
What do you remember learning about the “races of man” and where you fit into the picture?
How do you talk about race and ethnicity with children in your life, either as a parent, a teacher or friend?
Where in mainstream culture do you see imagery of the “white = good, black = bad” dichotomy and how it is applied to people?
What resources do you know about that can help others talk about this topic?