The Sneaky Privilege in Greeting Cards

7 min read

Greeting cards on display at retail.

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.”

I laughed.

“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.

Amandla Stenberg played Rue in "The Hunger Games" film. | photo cr:

Amandla Stenberg played Rue in “The Hunger Games” film. | photo cr:

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.

The fashion industry loves to use the words "nude" and "flesh" as colors.

The fashion industry loves to use the words “nude” and “flesh” as colors.

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.

Some people of color bleach their skin to achieve the lighter, brighter tone they think is more desirable. | photo cr:

Some people of color bleach their skin to achieve the lighter, brighter tone they think is more desirable. | photo cr:

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.

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark conducting the Doll Test (Harlem, New York, 1947) © Gordon Parks

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark conducting the Doll Test (Harlem, New York, 1947) © Gordon Parks

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.

From Hallmark's Mahogany line | photo cr:

From Hallmark’s Mahogany line | photo cr:

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 are Spanish-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.

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  • sepultura13
    October 14, 2013

    Great post! I have always HATED it when people use the terms ‘nude’ or ‘flesh-coloured.’ when I’m nude, my skin isn’t beige!

    If people really think about it, the color of ‘flesh’ is red…why? Because flesh is meat! Below is the definition:



    noun: flesh

    1. the soft substance consisting of muscle and fat that is found between the skin and bones of an animal or a human.

    Just my $0.02 on the subject…

    • thegirlnextdoorisblack
      October 14, 2013

      I will never look at “flesh-colored” (or coloUred ;)) the same again. I’ll be thinking about red, sinewy, bloody muscle. Haha 🙂

      • sepultura13
        October 18, 2013

        LOL – I had a former co-worker who would go on and on and on about how Crayola crayons used to have ‘flesh’ as a colour. When I informed her of what ‘flesh’ really was, she shut up about it…which was my intention! LMAO

  • allthedots
    October 11, 2013

    This is a really interesting post! You pointed out other examples of subtle sexism that I didn’t even notice before. (Like the implications of the word “nude”.) Another thing about the Hunger Games: according to an article I read, the casting call for Katniss Everdeen specified they only wanted Caucasian actresses trying out for the role. However, Katniss is olive-skinned and dark-haired, features that other ethnicities could have fit. Hollywood is seriously stuck in the ’50’s. We are yet to see a nonwhite protagonist in a movie that is not centered on their ethnic identity.

    • thegirlnextdoorisblack
      October 11, 2013

      Yeah, I’ve seen a few complaints about Katniss’ casting with regard to her character’s description. I think Jennifer Lawrence is great as Katniss. But, how powerful could it have been to see Katniss portrayed by a woman of color? We don’t get to see many women of color playing strong, self-possessed, badasses (outside of obvious stereotypes and caricatures). I’m sure the PTB behind the movie, feared it wouldn’t make as much money if their lead wasn’t white. Money makes Hollywood go ’round. :/

      • allthedots
        October 12, 2013

        I definitely think it’s the money, and Hollywood filmmakers are afraid to take risks with new themes. I mean, how many films have come out in the past 30 years with popular cheerleaders and jocks, sci fi geeks and nerds, blonde bimbos, prototypical romantic comedies and action flicks, etc.

        • thegirlnextdoorisblack
          October 14, 2013

          Agreed. Not to count the number of remakes, remakes of remakes and movies based on popular TV cartoons and shows.

  • Heidi
    October 11, 2013

    This came up on my FB feed today:

    When I was a kid I always wondered why band-aids were beige. I asked someone (can’t remember who) and they told me that it was so they matched our skin. Of course I asked about black people and if they have their own band-aids. I was sad to hear they didn’t. I still remember how shocked I was that not everyone had their own band-aids and I insisted that they should. I guess growing up near Detroit gave me some sense of people other than myself.

    • thegirlnextdoorisblack
      October 11, 2013

      Haha, what timing! That article is heartening.

      I think kids can see some phenomena more clearly than adults do. I think as we get older and intake more experiences and sensory images, it’s easier to accept things that don’t directly impact us or have a largely negative net effect. But, as a kid, it’s as simple as “Why aren’t their band-aids to match everyone’s skin?”

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