Created Apr 8 2013 – 9:00pm Revised August 2014
Depending on how much light is scattered and transmitted, clouds assume different colors. And be rest assured that whether clouds are perceived to be purple, gold, white, grey or ominously dark, most people will use the appropriate word for the color in question. Ditto for pillows, shirts, cars or even bananas, which are said to be green, yellow or brown.
That’s not the case with grapes and wine. When we see mutant fruit, that is ripe yet green, we strangely call it “white”. When wine is made, compounds from the skin are transferred to the juice and phenolic compounds undergo various degrees of oxidation. They cause the liquid to assume hues ranging from yellow-green to beige. But regardless of the spectrum of possibilities, the wine is described with the same word used for milk, cotton balls, titanium dioxide and egg-whites.
Next we turn to what society has turned into a serious matter: skin color. I’m not questioning whether murder or suicide statistics should be analyzed along “racial” lines (but they aren’t as clear-cut as they seem on the surface), nor do I want to step into the black hole of debates surrounding the scientific basis of race. ( I suspect, however, that there’s no biological basis for the classification.) But without blinking, even non-racist authors refer to black and white men, and they’re not riding Lennon’s newspaper taxis on the shore. Just about anyone with eyesight realizes that the shades of skin color range from pink-beige to beige-brown to dark brown. The colors are not absolute; lighting affects them, and natural light varies with the amount of cloud cover and time of day. Makeup and UV-exposure are more factors altering the color of skin, and indoors, the intensity and wavelengths of electrical lighting also differ. For my collage of forehead-samples shown below, the pictures were taken with various cameras, whose settings, optics and electronics introduce more variables.
So why do we persist in using the terms “black” and “white” for a variety of melanin concentrations? When children first see an unfamiliar skin color and ask why that person looks different, some parents use the chocolate milk analogy. Its appearance depends on how much cocoa you put in, but everyone has at least a little, and no matter how much you add, the solution never turns black. Unlike coal or a chalk board, even the flesh of a melanin-enriched person like that of Kevin Garnett does not absorb all wavelengths of visible light.
I don’t want to be seen as a white whiner, but to use black and white to describe people is horrendous diction —-they’re antonyms. The vocabulary reinforces a dichotomy, one heterogeneous group is not the antithesis of the other. So why do we continue in a manner that suggests otherwise?