“Whiteness” in a Box of Crayons
Due to white privilege and a convoluted racial history in the United States, the average white American does not recognize their color in a way that few black people can be unaware of their race.*
When I was a child, I enjoyed colouring books. Much to my more visually artistic younger sister’s disapproval, I enjoyed staying in the lines and sticking to what I perceived as realistic or proper colours for things, i.e. skies were blue (sky blue, if i had it), grass was green, and tree trunks were brown, etc. To help me lay my hands on the right colour, I put my crayons back in their box in an organized fashion. My own children do not share this need for crayon organization nor my love of colouring books. Using blank sheets of paper, my eldest son rarely even cares about the edges. And once the crayons are out of the box, they never seem to make their way back into the box.
Now, in the days when I was colouring, in the large boxes of crayons, alongside Aquamarine, Sky Blue, Chestnut Brown, Magenta, etc. one could find a crayon labelled Flesh. The colour was a sort of orangey-pink (like the one in the featured image). While it did not match my own skin tone which was paler by comparison at least in the winter or a brighter more painful red in the summer, I understood that this crayon was attempting to represent my skin tone in the same way that Sky Blue was attempting to match the sky on a clear summer day or Chestnut Brown was attempting to match the hue of a typical mature chestnut.
Perhaps, if Flesh had been a nearer match to my own skin colour, I would not have become aware of how odd it was to call this particular hue Flesh or Flesh Tone. As it happened, I grew up in a bi-racial home. So, while Flesh approximated my skin colour (at least for half the year), it most certainly did not match my Dad’s skin colour nor the flesh tones of my younger sister who sat across from me colouring a pink tree and going purposefully outside the lines. Respectively, their fleshtones are more like Crayola’s Burnt Umber and Sepia (like a strong coffee with just the right amount of cream).
While my box did contain crayons labelled Flesh and Indian Red (one of my favourite colours in childhood – right up there with Aquamarine), the box did not contain Paki Brown (of course, most of my colouring books only portrayed people with European features anyway so what need would I have had for it?).
Privileged Flesh Sets the Standard
To be white is to benefit from the past and present suffering of others; the history of whiteness is cruelty, exploitation, and domination. To be white is to have the power to name “the other” and to be the “supreme judge” of what is worthy and acceptable in society.*
In naming this colour Flesh, the crayon makers of the day were implicitly privileging that particular form of embodiment that is now commonly referred to as being “white” over all other forms of embodiment.
In this seemingly benign box of crayons, white children were in danger of imbibing the assumption that their way of being — being white — is the standard by which other ways of being are judged and, perhaps, ought to be judged. In contrast, all those children like my sister whose diverse skin tones did not by any stretch of the imagination conform to the standard flesh tone as it was presented in a box of ordinary crayons were at risk of imbibing assumptions about their deviance from the standard of whiteness.
While Crayola and other crayon companies have discontinued labeling these hues as “Flesh” and “Indian Red”, many thoughtful men and women have been asking and, in light of the election of Donald Trump, are asking with renewed urgency that white people become aware of whiteness which still pervades our cultural landscapes and is particularly apparent in the current American political landscape. White people need to wake up to whiteness. Ridding our culture of “whiteness” will not be as simple as changing the name of a crayon but at least that was a start.
Whiteness is Bad for Pale Folk, Too
Robert T. Osborn describes whites as “in bondage to a deadly past” and unaware of their own need for liberation. He states that whites are victims of their own oppressive racism in that they have become blind to God’s works and intentions, as well as what is needed for society as a whole.*
Many “white” people, including myself, remain unaware of the many ways that the status quo, the way we have “always” done things, the way we speak, how we see justice, and even the way we reason serves to continue and uphold structures of white privilege. Most of us would explicitly state that we are not racist and most of us would assume that we will recognize racist policies and actions when they rear their heads.
Yet, many of us have not been and are not listening to those people of colour who have been telling us and are telling us that whiteness has been and is still at work in the world today.
Many white folk are in need of being healed of blindness. I would suggest it is the double healing of the blind man in the Gospel of John that we need — and yes I include myself here as well.
We need first to have our eyes opened to what black theologians like James Cone and J. Kameron Carter have called whiteness and then we need to have our eyes healed to see the world in a new way that not only frees people of colour from this history of oppression but frees us those of us called white from our complicity in oppression.
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* The quotes in this post were taken from the following very helpful article: “Liberating White Christians Through Black Theology” Jennifer Hill, Furman Humanities Review, Vol. 21, May 2010.
Further Reading (with links to Amazon):
Dear White Christians by Jenny Harvey
The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (And watch the Netflix documentary 13th)
A Theology of Race by J. Kameron Carter
A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone
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