Red and Yellow, Black and White: Racism gets into our Words

As I typed that title, I at first meant to bring to mind the song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”  It’s a song that is meant to show the unity we have in God’s love – a love for “all the children of the world.”  But things have changed since I was a kid in the 1970’s – back then it was common enough to talk about “Indians” as red, and Asians as yellow.  (Note that it’s clearer to speak of “Indians” as “First Peoples” in my opinion – they’re not from India, are they; but they did precede my ancestors as the First Peoples in North America.)  Today one would never, ever (I hope) talk about humans as being red or yellow.

In reality, we’re all shades of brown.  Living in Malaysia, I am more aware of skin color, for a couple of reasons.  The first was brought home to me when I was returning to my seat on our flight to KK.  We had come from DC, to LA, to Tokyo, to Singapore, and finally, we were soon to land in our new home: Kota Kinabalu.  I was coming from the back of the plane, and suddenly I noticed, as I looked at the back of the heads:  all smooth, black hair.  All except Eric – even his dark brown hair stood out as different.  Of the whole plane, his one head stood out as different.  And as life continued and we settled in, we still stand out as “orang putih” – people who are white.  

I tend to subtly notice skin tone now because it gives me clues for what language to speak – people who are of Chinese descent have a lighter skin tone than people who are ethnically Malay or come from various tribes in Sabah.  Since I try to speak languages other than English (it sends a message, I hope, that I am open to the things that are rooted in this land), I use clues to guess whether to speak Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin Chinese, or just stick with English (like when I meet someone of actual Indian descent).  I hope that I am not stereotyping further by noticing skin color – but I probably am, if I slow down and look at the assumptions that go with the “clues” I’m searching for.

One of my friends posted today on Facebook: “…I shouldn’t have used the word “darkness” to mean “evil” in the link I posted. I was unintentionally participating in the unconscious racism buried in our language and culture. Should I take it down, or leave it up as an example of mistake and apology?” And a great conversation commenced.

She is spot-on in the way that we use language clues to lead to our assumptions.  We talk about darkness as scary, dangerous, suspicious, etc. and we talk about light as purity, clarity, intelligence (bright), etc.  Then we talk about skin as being black or white.  There may or not be a causative link there (black skin leads [stereotypes] to black thoughts) but I think the link sinks in beyond just our words.  in the US justice system, black skin is far more likely to get someone convicted, based on the same evidence, as lighter colors of skin.  It’s not fair, but there it is.  

Yet think about light:  as kids we are taught that light is made of all the colors together.  A prism shows that white light has many hues in it.  So white – clarity, brightness, beauty – is what comes from diversity, from colors blending together.  

But then as a kid, I tried to make white by combining all the paint colors.  Of course, I got brown.  But that, too, can translate to hope.  Mixing up all the colors – all the hues of humanity – you get brown.  For all that people call me “orang putih” my skin is not white.  My skin is beige (a shade of brown… and if I’m not careful, tan – I’m using a lot more sunscreen now!).  My friends here have different & gorgeous colors of skin, and when we are together, what we get is like that white light – we get illumination, we shine, we glow – because of our diversity.  

I think we should still sing “Jesus loves the little Children” – maybe we should sing, “tan and auburn; umber, wheat – they are precious in his sight.”  But we can also add into our singing the truth that we, like Jesus, can love one another, regardless of skin color, because we are all children of this earth and children of God.  Jesus’ kingdom is shown when we love more than we label, when we listen more than we assume.  May our words continue to adapt to our understandings of one another in mercy, justice, and love.

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2 responses to “Red and Yellow, Black and White: Racism gets into our Words

  1. Kathleen A. Kerin

    Wow, thanks for an excellent and VERY relevant discussion. As I am currently a 2nd year Seminarian (and writing final papers as I speak) I have been continually reminded to be aware of the assumptions I carry around. The piece about somehow conflating darkness and danger (or in my case – yes evil) is something that I had been called out in a class about, over choosing a color of chalk to describe pure…..it is not something I shall soon (if ever) forget. Change is difficult, but if awareness and compassion are the first to befriend it, than they make change much more easier to come by. Thanks for your article!

    • Kerin, thank you for joining the conversation. Being called out is no fun but it can change the way we look at things. A professor who is also blind (Craig Satterlee) asked us what we thought about the song lyrics “that blindness and oppression cease” – we all thought it was great. He asked, do you think my blindness is evil, or a sign of wickedness, or unloved by God? And I was stopped in my tracks. Is blindness bad? Because it was part of his identity, from his birth, and he was made by God. Spiritual blindness, now, he agreed that’s bad, but that’s not what the song said. I’ve been careful ever since about how I speak and think about disability. Because he spoke out, for himself and for others. As you say, let awareness and compassion befriend us!

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