My dilemma

March 14, 2007

I’ve been reading a lot of blogs lately that talk a lot about invisible discrimination, the discrimination that, except for the victims, nobody notices. (One such blog is Vox Ex Machina, which I’m not just recommending because I went to school with its author. Do go check it out; you will probably learn something. I did.) Many people today seem to think that as long as nobody is being forced to drink out of a separate water fountain, racism is “over.” Not so.

Yesterday, at work, I was assigned to create some buttons for a web site my supervisor is working on. They were supposed to designate subheadings of an online manual explaining how to use a piece of software. The headings were things like “Getting started,” “Learning the basics,” “Communication Tools,” and so on. The first few gave me no trouble. I’m not an artist, but I can handle myself passably in Illustrator when mostly geometric shapes are involved, and the pictures I was trying to create were not much more complicated than, say, a smiling PC.

I ran into trouble at Communication Tools. Since I don’t have the skills for drawing a ringing phone or whatever the accepted corporate glyph for “communication” is these days, I settled on drawing two people, in profile, talking to each other. I futzed with the outlines for a while. (I told you, non-geometric shapes are hard for me–I didn’t study English to become a sketch artist!) I added eyeballs. I clicked the “fill” button for each head and scrolled to what looked to me like the color for “skin.”

Fair, peach skin.

I couldn’t blame myself for instinctively reaching for the fair skin tone. It is, after all, the tone of my skin, my family’s skin, and the tone of 90% of those in my hometown (at least when I was growing up). But I now had a dilemma. I couldn’t make both faces fair-skinned, but nor could I, I reasoned, make them both darker. One light, one dark connotes “diversity training” to many, not “communication.” I waffled for a while, unsure of what to do.

Eventually, I settled on two colors I couldn’t find fault with: light magenta and teal. Now my talking heads, which looked fairly stupid to begin with, look like Martians.

I know this is a tiny issue, in perspective. Perhaps a dozen faculty members will use this site per year. But this is exactly the kind of attitude that results in advertisements featuring people of only one race. This is the kind of attitude that perpetuates a culture that celebrates whiteness. This ad encourages Indian women to lighten their skin; the girl is “too brown,” apparently, to land a rich American husband until she uses Fair & Lovely cream. I’ve always found the Boondocks animated series to use a lighter skin tone for the main characters, whereas the bad guys are drawn much, much darker. Compared to this guy, Huey and Riley just look tan.

Disney has just announced that they are making a return to 2-D animation with “The Frog Princess,” set in 1920’s New Orleans with the first African American Disney Princess. Screw that, she’s the first black Disney princess. Wording it otherwise implies that Disney has a proven track record for making movies about people of color outside America.
From the one bit of concept art I’ve seen, not only is the leading character, Maddy, gorgeous, but she’s dark. (Compared to the Boondocks, at least, which of course Disney has nothing to do with.)

My point is that things could be changing. Or maybe this movie will turn out to be awful. Prince Harry, who Maddy presumably marries at the end, is a European. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’m not sure I made the right decision with my magenta and teal people, but I didn’t—and still don’t—see a viable alternative. What are your thoughts?

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One Response to “My dilemma”

  1. Vox Says:

    *nod* You’re right in that it’s not about blaming oneself so much as recognition/awareness and rejection of that first instinct. And you’re also right that all the little things to end up adding up.

    What I probably would have done in your place is pick two shades or tannish-brown, neither the peachy color or a dark brown. But that would probably not have been right either, for reasons you touched on. I think, if your people are stylized, magenta and teal is a fine compromise. Better than “colorblind” talking heads, or a pair that scream intentional diversity, you know? I don’t know. Sometimes the little things are easier to fix but harder to figure out than the big ones.


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