My decision to spend my late adolescent and early adult years in a convent had a long list of consequences, some more troublesome than others, and some a bit quirky. I place my knowledge and skill about appropriate make up for women in the quirky category. I missed the exploratory, training and course correction stages of make-up mastery for women. As a result, I can stand at the L’Oréal display in my local CVS and simply dither. It also, however, makes it possible for me to study the phenomena associated with make-up for women a bit like an alien might observe the products, rituals, expectations and judgments that whirl about these phenomena.
One I keep tripping over is “color”. I use a make-up foundation that is labeled “Classic Beige”. I have also, however, tried “Golden Beige” and “Honey Beige”. I am toying with field testing “Natural Beige” next, though “Fresh Beige” looks interesting too. Now what all these colors have in common, obviously, is the word Beige. I am fairly certain I am Beige. None of these foundations use the word “White” to describe my skin color. Nonetheless, in every US Census inquiry I completed, including the last two, I was essentially asked to describe myself as “White”. It always creates a sense of cognitive dissonance. We can’t keep saying we want to create an anti-racist society and concurrently insist that all the beige people should keep describing themselves as members of the “White” race. It’s irrational.
In the last US Census forms the race listing presented “White” as a first option. “White” is presented as “race”, with a request to write in origins, providing examples such as German or Egyptian. The second “race” option is “Black” or African-American (both are indicated), again with a request to write in origins, providing examples such as Nigerian or Somali. These two first items are followed by a comparable Native American and Native Alaskan item and thirteen other un-color-coded options, all linked to respondents’ ethnic origins, primarily in Asia.
This insistence that in our first two options we use the colors of Black and White to identify ourselves (and our race) seems overtly reinforcing to me. No one filling in these forms is truly White or Black…there is variance in the amount of melanin in the skin of individuals but this is merely a chemical measure.
White and Black are terms adopted to create social constructs designed to advantage some people and disadvantage others through an arbitrary insistence on an clearly unproven and exceedingly challenged “superiority”. It is a dominance and control system, not a color identification system, created through colonization, genocide and slavery.
And it is clearly not a “race” clarification system. Indeed, a high percentage of those checking the “Black” box have demonstrable partial “White” heritage. And most did not acquire this “White” portion in a noble or admirable way. As a result, “White” is only acknowledged if you are totally “White”, called “White Alone” in census data reporting (seriously!). Part of this is shaped with an amazing special process with Hispanic respondents. Hence, “White Alone” excludes Hispanic “White” respondents.
I have tried a number of maneuvers to grapple with this idiocy, to try to distance myself. Some research projects are even more extreme: I once completed a health focused research survey including data collection on the demographics of the respondents. “White” was my first demographic option followed by 34 additional options, a huge list of what I call the hyphenated American options. In such cases, I have located the “Other Race” option, usually at the bottom of the form. I then write in either the “Continent Option” (European-American), to be congruent with African-American, Asian-American, etc. or the “Nation Option” (German-American), to be congruent with Mexican-American, Japanese-American, etc. This seems like an exercise in futility but I like to imagine some researcher wondering why I did this. I suspect I become random error in some cases. Sad…
After studying my make-up lessons, I am now considering switching to a new option when confronted with the invitation to “White” self-description. I will again locate the option where I can write in my own wording for race and/or ethnicity. I am thinking I should meet this form on its own terms, so I am going to start writing “Beige” in this write in option. I am curious, of course, if the researchers will view this as random error when it is so clearly accurate and truthful. Besides, if a box of crayons will explain my identity, accuracy should be helpful. We might branch out if we can make it a movement: Ivory, Mahogany, Amber, Bronze, Carmel, Flaxen, Onyx, Mushroom, Cocoa…we have options.
One other thought emerges for me. If we are going to ensure the success of this movement, we need to make sure that the beige, ivory and flaxen folks step up and fill in the blank space. If only the mahogany, onyx and cocoa folks opt to fill in the blank space, the whole effort will be viewed as hostile and dangerous…you know…. WOKE! Ron DeSantis will be making speeches about the threat of the Crayon Crowd, and individual freedoms will be threatened in a whole new category: Color Coding Self-Description.
I have no way of making sure that the men who read this will be haunted by my idea of a great new movement. Most of them do not purchase or use make-up foundation. But I do like to imagine all the women who read this will be totally haunted by the Crayon Crowd option every time they fill out a form requesting demographic information on race… because they had put on their make-up. I bet they will check to see the name of the color they are applying to their face!
There is deep beauty in not averting our gaze. No matter how hard it is, no matter how heartbreaking it can be. It is about presence. It is about bearing witness. - Terry Tempest Williams -
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