Color Me White


“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:

Races_white “What can you say of the White Race?”
The White Race, also called the Caucasian, is the most powerful, and includes the greatest number of people. NOTE: The United States and Europe are peopled chiefly by this race. They are the most highly civilized race. Most of the nations belonging to this race believe in the Christian religion.
What can you say of the Yellow Race?
The Yellow or Mongolian Race ranks in numbers next to the White Race. NOTE: The home of this race is principally in Asia. The Chinese and Japanese belong to it. The people belonging to this race are semi-civilized nations. They have written languages and have manufactures and commerce, but are not as well educated or so improved as the White Race. They are not Christians
What can you say of the Black Race?
The Black or Negro Race is found chiefly in Africa. NOTE: Most of the tribes belonging to this race are savages, thought some of them are much more advanced than others. They are generally superstitious, and worship idols; hence they are called savages. In the United States are many Colored People who are Christians and are civilized.
What can you say of the Brown Race?
The Brown People or Malays, have their homes principally on the islands of the Pacific Ocean. NOTE: The Malays are few in number, compared with the White, Yellow, or Black races. They are not much civilized. Some are savages, but other have been converted to Christianity by missionaries from our country and England.
What can you say of the Red Race?
The Indians, or Red People, live in some parts of North America and of South America. NOTE: The Indians of North America are the descendents of the aborigines who were found there on its discovery. As white people settled the colonies and States, the Indians were little by little driven westward, till now they are almost entirely confined to the region of the Far West. They are few in number and are mostly savages and pagans. The Indians of South America number several millions, and many of them are partly civilized.

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?

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5 Responses to Color Me White

  1. Natalie Mattson says:

    I am of European descent or white and have often thought we ought to be called pink rather than white. Some of it is out of spite or frustration; I want to work with deeper implications of what we call white skin and how we have created innocence and purity around the color white and whiteness. Like putting on a clean white dress, white wedding dress, white table cloth, even bright white teeth! It never made sense to me that white was referred to as a skin color. I am not the color of the page on which I am typing.

    I think about Life Magazine when I was growing up in the 60’s and the implications of the title and those featured inside. I began associating “Life” with white. So for me, Life Magazine was right in step with the social construct of whiteness (as best and normal) and I was happy to spend hours turning the pages and drinking it in, so validating! Another aspect of associating “white” with “life” was because of the absence of others on the magazine pages, non-whites. I considered this, the color and images of whiteness, as the reference for life. I began viewing things from my perspective thinking it was The Way rather than one way. I vividly recall the strong emotions of realizing that my way was not the “right way” it was just “a way” of doing things. I learned this in the process of becoming a mediator, in my 20s, which opened me to the world of self-reflection. Profound learning that I continue to work with, forget about, and relearn…all the time.

    • JanetC says:

      Thanks, Natalie, for these comments. I also read Life Magazine as a child and loved it. This reminds me of the Family of Man experience in a previous post — that conflating of “white” with “human” by default, by where the eye (or camera) is turned, making it hard to see or know who is left out. And that shock of realizing that there are other realities — and that, yes we may really be “pink” but whiteness does mean something far more powerful than our skin tone.

  2. Kelly Harold says:

    Thanks for your blog, I love it!

    At around age 6, as a young American girl of European descent, I drew a cartoon that featured two girls, one of Chinese descent and one white/Euro-American, standing side by side. I had labelled them, respectively, “Chinese” and… “normal.” I showed the drawing to my mother, who thought it was hilarious. This deeply embarrassed me, as I had felt proud of my ability to synthesize what I had learned from the grown-ups around me. Although nobody had ever explicitly equated “whiteness” with “normal,” I had internalized this racist thought-structure from the implicit, but not altogether subtle, messaging of the white supremacist culture. My parents often attributed to race the flaws in people they encountered in their daily lives (“Oh, Filipino women are very manipulative”), and additionally, “flaws” themselves were sometimes found in anyone who, for whatever reason, couldn’t or chose not to satisfy their demands (“That Chinese lady KNEW damn well what I was asking for, she just didn’t want to help me”). In my family of origin, and I’m surely not alone in this, white supremacy banded together with the narcissism that infected my parents as adult children of dysfunctional families to prime me for a lifetime’s work of psychological reprogramming.

    • JanetC says:

      Thanks, Kelly, for these reflections on how we are conditioned by such “ordinary” comments from family members, and the insight that “flaws” are attributed to people who don’t measure up to the demands or expectations of white people — one of the ways white privilege is manifested and passed on.

  3. Jerry Smith says:

    Janet – Good show of where ‘we’ were almost 200 yrs ago in education re race, stereotyping, etc.
    Interesting the title – The Land…etc. and I wonder where we are today with so many schools no
    longer integrated, the increase of ‘Christian’ schools that were basically created to insure “white”
    schools and not just in the south, either, but all over this nation. The Catholic Schools seemed to
    do a better job of integrating than the Christian fundamentalist schools and the ‘home’ schools.

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