A few days ago I was at my local greeting card store picking up what seemed like stacks of birthday cards because I tend to befriend and befamily* a disproportionate number of Pisces/Aries/Taurus people (those born in March and April, for the non-astrology folks). As I approached the cash register to pay, I kind of hoped that I wouldn’t be helped out by the somewhat eccentric older woman with the Thelma Harper hair and with whom I’d had an off-putting encounter around the Christmas holidays.
As I was packing away the holiday cards I’d just purchased (holiday-neutral, no religious symbols, no mentions of Christmas, baby Jesus or miraculous pregnancies) in the reusable bag I’d dutifully brought with me (you’re welcome, Earth), she wished me a, “Happy Holidays.”
“Thanks, you too!”
“Oh, thank you. You know, last week, I said ‘Merry Christmas’ to a customer. She snapped at me, ‘I am Jewish!’ Sor-REEEE. You don’t have to jump down my throat! Can’t say anything these days without somebody getting offended. Do you celebrate Christmas?”
“Then MERRY CHRISTMAS to you, young lady.”
I tilted my head in false sympathy for her plight and left.
Erm…okay. I mean, maybe you shouldn’t make assumptions about people’s religion? Maybe the customer is Jewish and in the religious minority in this country and gets tired of people assuming she celebrates Christmas? I mean, I get annoyed when ignorant dudes approach with me some fake swagger and a “Hey girl, what’s up?” trying to sound hood, but the same dude will greet my white or Asian friend with, “Hi, I’m Joe,” using perfect diction, sounding like they’re ready to give a speech to the President. It just so happens that I also speak Standard American English and am capable of understanding simple words like, ‘Hi, I’m Joe.” So, spare me the blaccent. Assumptions, assumptions. Just assy.
A few months later, I stood at the register and who else but eccentric older woman made her way toward me? Three employees in the store and I get her.
“All set? Oh! Let me show you our Easter cards!” She motioned toward the front of the store.
“Oh, no thank you.”
“They’re just right here. I’ll show you.” She started toward the cards.
Her voice was loud enough for me and the rest of the customers in the store to hear.
“Thanks. I don’t celebrate Easter.”
“Ahhhh…” she walked back to the register. The woman standing in line behind me tensed up, shifted her weight. The woman still hadn’t even rung up my purchases; she was too busy badgering me into looking at Easter cards.
I was raised Christian, but don’t consider myself Christian and don’t really make it a point to celebrate Easter. I do celebrate Christmas, but for the secular reasons.
“It’s just, there’s one with an [she lowered her voice to a loud whisper] ‘African-American’ on it. We don’t usually have those, so…”
Why is this happening? For real? I just wanted to buy some damn cards.
On the one hand, given I’ve written about the lack of color representation among greeting card choices, it’s positive there’s a card with a black person on it. But, it’s ONE CARD. What if I didn’t like the card? What if the person on the card was wearing some tacky ass outfit? Or looked ratchet? Or looked like a white person whose skin was painted a horrible brown shade that doesn’t exist in humans? Like I’m not supposed to notice the European features on the chocolate skin. They do that. Thanks for the charity. One card.
On the other hand: woman, seriously? Stop being so pushy and sticking your foot all the way in your mouth. It’s kind of ridiculous to single me out because you have one black card. She probably meant well, but c’mon.
“Yeah, not a lot of cards like that. I’ll have to check that out some other time.”
It seemed like it took her ages to ring me up before finally I could bolt from the store. The lone black customer has exited the store, off to do some black stuff. Goodbye.
Earlier this year I was lounging at Starbuck’s with my friend V, who is Chinese-American. A friend of hers, also Chinese-American, was getting married to a half-white/half Japanese-American man.
She told me, with some sheepishness, “You’re going to kill me, but I bought a card for ___ and ____ with white people on it.”
“Why would I kill you? It’s not like I’m some militant “black power” chick. ‘You must only buy cards with people of color on them!'”
She chuckled and nodded.
“But, let me ask you this,” I continued, “would you give one of your white friends a wedding card with a happy Asian couple depicted?”
She thought for a beat and answered, “No. No, I wouldn’t.”
“That’s all I’m saying. You can do what you want. But, if you would think twice about giving your white friend a card with a non-white person on it, why wouldn’t you think twice about the reverse?”
The answer is pretty simple. In our country, the dominant culture is white, of European ancestry. White is considered “normal” or the “default.” To not be white is to be different, other, a minority.
When The Hunger Games movie was released last year, a subset of moviegoers were less than thrilled to discover that two of the characters, Rue and Thresh, were played by black actors. One particularly warm-hearted malcontent tweeted, “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.”
Well, damn. To me, that comment suggests that this person doesn’t see a black life as valuable as a white life. Seems pretty racist to me.
As Anna Holmes rightly identified, in her article in The New Yorker on the “The Hunger Games” tweets, “…the heroes in our imaginations are white until proven otherwise.” Again, white is the default. Some people assumed Rue and Thresh were white. It should be noted, as people who read the books (including me) pointed out, the young adult novel explicitly mentions Rue “has dark brown skin and eyes” and Thresh has “the same dark skin as Rue.” Why shouldn’t there be black characters in The Hunger Games (or Asians or Latinos)? We exist too and we should also be represented, and not superfluously to fill an invisible quota or to simply play the sidekick propping up the white hero. Also notable about the book, is the fact that Rue and Thresh’s skin color was explicitly mentioned. Often when characters are white, their color isn’t addressed. It’s often only when a character is a person of color or otherwise “different” that their ethnicity or race is explicitly stated.
Many of my friends have heard me rant about the fashion industry’s use of the words “nude” and “flesh” as colors. Those colors are basically tan or beige, maybe peach. When I look at my flesh, it’s brown and decidedly not tan. When I am nude, I am still brown, not beige. Those color terms, as innocuous as they may seem, represent just a slice of how pervasive the dominant culture is in our country. “Nude” and “flesh” are normal. If I want an article of clothing or an undergarment that closely matches my skin tone, the color won’t be called “nude”, it’ll be “chocolate” or “deep brown” (and likely there will only be one dark shade, but many more lighter shades).
Concerning oneself with the lack of ethnic diversity in greeting cards, or taking umbrage at the terms used to describe colors in fashion may seem trivial to some. I very much disagree. It’s all too easy to internalize the idea that you are somehow inferior to the majority or the dominant culture, when you don’t readily see representations of people who look like you. When people who look like you are considered abnormal – outside of the norm.
I cannot count the number of friends of color who have shared with me stories of “the time they wanted to be white.” Their reasons varied from they “wanted to be like everyone else,” to they “wanted their family to be like the white families they saw on TV.” More harmfully, however, there were expressions of the desire to be more “conventionally attractive.” There were fears their nose was too wide, face too flat, butt too protruding, hair too nappy, skin too dark, eyes not large enough and so on. We, the “different ones”, should not have to live in a society where we feel excluded or somehow less than. The prevailing standard of beauty in this country is a European standard of beauty that more often than not, doesn’t include people of color. Yes, there are exceptions, exceptions some are all too quick to name when they want to avoid acknowledging potentially discomforting realities. However, these exceptions prove there’s an issue.
The famous “doll experiment” from the early 20th century aptly demonstrated the internalization and implicit acceptance of a white standard of beauty. A group of black children were given two dolls: one brown with dark hair and one white with blonde hair. They were asked questions such as which doll they’d prefer to play with, which was nicer, which doll had a nice color. The kids showed a clear preference for the white dolls. When the study was repeated in the 21st century, obviously with a different set of children, the results were sadly, quite similar.
I remember being told once as a kid, by a black female relative, “Don’t stay out in the sun too long; you’ll get too dark!” The subtext of that warning was, of course, that being “too dark” would make me less attractive. Internalized racism is real.
I don’t want to take anything away from anyone. I want to be equal. I should be able to feel good about the body I was born into. I deserve to feel good about the body I was born into. It’s real work to feel secure in a society that tells you that you aren’t normal. As much as I’ve built up my self-esteem, I still find traces of that internalized racism lurking down deep from time to time. It horrifies and disgusts me. Even a black woman, who is aware these issues exist, I am not impervious to their power.
It’s not just about a card (or a doll, or birthday decorations, or “nude and “flesh” colors) to me. It’s so much more.
The idea that we’re living in a “post-racial nation” is a bad, bad joke. We are still not equal. As long as these minor, but cumulative signs and symbols of racial power and subversion continue to exist, we are not and will not be equal. In the same way that women fought and continue to fight for equality, including challenging existing male-centered, patriarchal language, we have to do the same for people of color. This is a call to everyone to examine the ways in which our society still doesn’t acknowledge and include all of its citizens and work to change it.
You can find greeting cards for purchase online that encompass diversity. However, it would be nice to be able to walk into a standard drugstore or greeting card store and have a varied, diverse set of greeting cards to choose from. There areSpanish-language greeting cards. Further, Hallmark has a separate line of greeting cards specifically for African-Americans. This is progress. However, these “speciality lines” are segregated in store displays. There are the “normal” cards with images of inanimate objects and / or white people and then there are the “other cards.” Segregation, even among greeting card displays, doesn’t demonstrate inclusion. It should be considered “normal” to have diverse sets of people represented on greeting cards, whether those people are black, white, Asian, Latino, multi-racial, gay, disabled, etc. The faces of Americans are ever-changing and our societal artifacts should reflect as much.
A few days after our greeting card conversation, V and I visited Papyrus. V wanted to find a more suitable card for her friends. I’d picked up some Christmas cards there, one batch of which featured a tall, thin, brown-skinned woman, with long-flowing hair in a fashionable outfit. She didn’t look anything like me other than the brown skin, but it was a close enough representation for my satisfaction. We weren’t able to find a card representative of her friends, unfortunately, so she ended up purchasing a card without people on the front flap. Problem solved…for now.
I'm Keisha ("Kee-shuh", not to be confused with Ke$ha). I am a (later) thirty-something, non-mommy, non-wife, who lives in San Francisco, California New York and has lots of opinions on lots of things.