In many ways, it is not so much the idea that a person is “white” or “not white” that is at the root of much of the value-based discrimination in our world but the words we use to describe the races. White and black are the most obviously problematic but where do these notions come from? How do we associate skin tone with these colors that have little in common with those of the skin itself?
White is a symbol of purity while yellow denotes contagion, red contamination and black evil, brown the color of dirt and soil. While in modern speech we use words like Latinx, Chinese and Native-American, it is certainly not uncommon even in this age to hear people spoken of not just as white and black but brown, yellow and red.
The value of white is that it is pure. It is naturally pure and clean and beautiful — the result of all colors of light coming together, the light of the sun, the brightness that gives us our life and makes the earth the place we can live. It is not in the slightest confusion why people the world over, whether a member of that ethnic group or not, have an inflated sense of the importance of its virtue and how close it is to perfection. That is not surprising, given the level of privilege associated with being part of that particular group and there is an overwhelming historical motive to it. But there is also a linguistic one that needs to be challenged if the differentiation is to be overcome.
There will not come a time when black, yellow, red and brown are seen as being as valuable as white — not as people but as concepts and colors. We have an inherent bias favoring things that feel clean and pure, beautiful and simple, over those that are less so. The answer to this must come not from changing people’s personal views over whether white is preferable to brown but with the terms we use to identify the groups. I have met many people who identify as white who have skin of varying colors — pink, yellow, tan, cream but never, not once, anywhere close to white. I have met many native Americans with skin that varies from a beige tan to an ochre-ish hue but red is reserved for party balloons and rowboats. While those on the far-darkest end of the spectrum of Africans may disappear when they close their eyes on a moonless night, in the light of day it would be hard to mistake their skin color for the absolute absence of tone and luminance of ink and were a yellow warbler to land on the shoulder of a native of China or Japan, the skin would be far closer to that of someone ethnically white than the feathers in question. So where do these names come from?
Historically, the answer is quite simple. It’s about the church. Not that the modern Christian enterprise has any real connection to the problem, except that there are many who self-identify both as Christian and white-supremacist — something I suspect Jesus would have had just as much problem with as anyone in our modern day, perhaps more. But many centuries ago, the notion of the western world as the purifying (white) light to conquer, subdue and convert in the name of the Holy Mother Church all other (read, heathen) races in all other (read, barbaric) places was couched in the language of light triumphing over darkness — white light, white people, white causes, not to mention some very red others, not from their skin but from the blood which rarely stayed inside their bodies when the crusaders came calling or the inquisition was in town.
But to blame organized Christianity for our modern mental joining of “white” and “pure” or “good” or “correct” is both silly and inaccurate. This may be in many ways where it began but it’s not in the slightest where it ended. There was, some years ago, an ad for soap by a company we all know (and some of us love) whose name, tellingly, is Dove. The ad was about purity and whiteness. It was about white, clean, gloriously unscented soap. It’s nice soap. Not the best soap in the world but, hot damn, if everyone else would stop with the scents and colors, the world would indeed be a better place. The problem wasn’t the soap, though. It’s that they talked about how pure it was because it’s white. And that set off the ringing of racist bells in people’s heads. Were they right? Well, no. They were being silly beyond belief. It was, after all, an ad for soap and no racial diversity was harmed in the making of the ad (if not of the soap, which is a whole other matter, given where their production facilities are based). What was to blame for the overreaction (and any reaction was an overreaction, as neither the ad nor the product were in the slightest racially-controversial)? The equating of “white” the color and “white” the racial description.
There are many books that need to be written on this — and I am rather surprised at the lack of them already existing. What is already out there is neither academically rigorous nor intelligently presented and that saddens me, as it should everyone who cares about the idea of race disappearing as quickly as possible from our consciousness and equality finally coming home to live amid our thoughts. But let’s take a brisk stroll through the issue.
There are no real racial divisions. We know this. We should all know this and if you don’t already, you know now. The physical differences and genetic deviations simply don’t stop at the racial divides and someone whose skin is dark is far more likely to have more genetic material in common (in other words, have more common ancestors) with someone who is light-skinned than with those of similar colors and facial features. Just as a puppy’s fur may be vastly different from its parents and a horse’s mane may be pure white when its mother’s is dark brown, human coloring has far less to do with ancestry than we once thought. It’s not a negligible connection but, especially with intermingling of those from various physical locations more and more, the idea of racial divisions is as ridiculous as it is heinous.
Black and white are very different colors — as are red, yellow and brown. While they do not in the slightest really describe the skin colors of those from different areas, they do describe emotional concepts — black generally being a lack of intelligence or evil, white being light, brightness and purity, yellow a symbol of wealth but sometimes sickness, red for happiness or pain and brown for a connection to the earth but often being tied to it endlessly. Divisions between people are a societal construct, much like what party you vote for or your faith, what language you speak or whether you like to read books or watch movies. They’re not programmed into our bodies any more than whether we like to curl up with Shakespeare and Danté or watch the antics of the Godfather and Rambo.
We need to separate the notions of color-motivated emotion from the long-outdated idea of race. While race is something that should be eliminated from our vocabulary and understanding completely, this may take some time. To help it on its way, though, we really need to do away with the color terms in the same way that it is no longer socially-acceptable to call someone a “red Indian” or “heathen moor” anymore. We need to recognize that it’s only perpetuating a stereotype by allowing people to refer to other humans as brown or yellow or white. White does symbolize better things, more enviable things, more powerful and ideal things. How is it possible that we can allow such a notion to be attached not simply to a color but to a group of people?
So, white allies in the fight for racial equality (or, perhaps better, racial indifference), what’s the answer? It’s not telling people they can’t talk about color or think about them — it’s about detaching color from racial identity. It’s about no longer thinking of anyone as “white” or “not white”. There are other words for it, I’m sure, although the problem with “caucasian” is twofold. One, it’s hard for most people to spell or say and it’s mostly the people who have little education who are going to be fighting the battle on the racial front, as you have likely already witnessed — those with more education, in many ways, have already won the battle and don’t want to talk about it anymore. Two, if you shorten it, nobody wants to be called a “cauc”, for obvious reasons. So we need a new term, one that we can use as a placeholder for those of western-European ancestry and light skin but that has no connotations of judgmental superiority. I’m open to suggestions — I’m all for outlawing from our speech and thought all notions of race but I know that’s not something that can be achieved for the general public overnight.
We are aware there is a problem equating these two, vastly different things — ancestry and color. What do we plan to do about it? If we do nothing, it won’t improve and we will simply leave it for generations to come. That seems more than unusually unfair.