While shopping the other day, one of the things I was looking for was cording for a necklace that my youngest son wanted me to repair. While comparing products I overheard a mother behind me instruct her child to “pick out a boy color for Adam—so, either that blue or green.” Now, those who know me well would not be surprised that my internal reaction was one of, umm, frustration—even, perhaps, a desire to turn and say something like, “I’m sorry, but, color does not discriminate—it is not gender specific!” I did not say anything, in case anyone wondered . . . . I, however, was surprised by the intensity with which I felt almost angry—well, yeah, it was anger. And, I had to take a moment to reflect on what was going on.
So, I did a little research . . . . Specifically, I researched on the history of color. Fascinating. The development and use of dyes follows the advance of organic chemistry, compounds mixed with elements in the earth and plants. The first synthetic dye did not show up until 1862—an alizarin crimson. Once synthesized, the production of dyes was monopolized in 1916 by German chemists, but post WWII, taken over by the US. Then, there is the physics of the perception of color—light refracted in immeasurable ways, a spectral distribution, not a thing in itself. And, the anatomy of the eye—three different types of cones in the retina, each sensitive to blue, green or red, with unique combinations and development of each person’s eye.
But, pastels for babies surfaced only in the mid-nineteenth century. In a June 1918 article of a trade publication, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blues for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is a more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Not until the 1940s did the more gender-specific clothing become normed, Boomers raised on the gender-signifiers. Still, “boy” or “girl” merchandise did not really take hold until the 1980s. Consumerism at its fullest, marketing invaded the collective consciousness, grasped its god-like role of telling the masses what they should believe, indoctrinated little boys and girls into thinking that they could categorize people by the color they wear.
There are far too many issues that could be addressed (e.g., consumerism vs. living simply, society’s impact on beliefs and perceptions, etc.). The main concern for me is the effects of seemingly benign categorizations, and the actual command they offer to those who use them to affect that power. As soon as a social entity attributes a characteristic to something as innocuous as color, it is absurdly easy to confine or shame another person to advance one’s control. So, a boy who appreciates the color pink can be ridiculed into believing he is gay. Or, a young woman who prefers black is dismissed as being goth, not worth regarding seriously. My son shared with me yesterday that another boy told him he holds his notebook “like a girl.” To this, my beloved son responded, “you must be stupid if you really believe that.” My other son was ridiculed as being a “dirty boy” because his shoes were worn out. He told the scorner that he did not care what he looked like, “at least I can walk.” I had told him that worn out shoes reflect how active he is—that he can run and jump and climb trees, but, there are some children who cannot even walk. Still, I went on eBay and purchased some barely used “Jordan’s” that “every, single person—I mean everyone—is wearing!” But, they were grey, not black like the others, so still “not cool.” His older sister beautifully told him not to heed the nay-sayers—that high-schoolers think those are very cool.
And, of course, trading the not-cool in elementary for the cool in high school does not fix the root of the problem (though it does alleviate the sting a bit for an 8-year-old). The crux lies with this terrible, insatiable need to put others in categories whereby ascribing value to the labels and, it follows, to the person. To do so gives the labeler power. It also instills shame to the non-conformist—who does not conform to norms that shift like the wind. And one might think this would be less relevant in our hyper digitized world that makes visible the amazing, remarkable, beautiful diversity within it. But, if anything, it makes such categorization easier to place—with “like” buttons and comment boxes, Pinterest hearts and one-off texts when irritated. And no matter how quickly the value of labels, even the markers to which they point, change, evolve or accumulate—they are. They continue to exist. Perhaps, more so.
If each person is unique, and each is created in the image of God, we can know God more by knowing each other. To know someone is to understand what makes that person unique—and cannot, by definition, be categorized. So, to label a person is to consider the other as an object, disregard the human, and miss a glimpse at God. It may seem a silly thing to be upset by someone ascribing gender to a color. But, it reveals the lazy eye, the undisciplined spirit that does not have time to appreciate the beauty of color in its own right. It is a result of a culture that does not value an attitude of gratitude and awe and wonder that can only derive from quiet and stillness, the pace of grace.
To be known is to be love and to be loved is to be known . . . . So, please, let us take time together—color my world!