November 30, 2009

“Your pumpkin pie slice skin, your caramel corn nice skin, your toffee wrapped, ginger snapped, cinnamon spice skin!”

A Twitt from occasional commenter @szvan alerted me to this blog post pointing to an AP story about the recent State Dinner hosted by the President and First Lady. The blog post was updated to say the AP story had been subsequently edited to redact the offending bit [ edited version ] but I was able to screen capture what seems to be the original version. Anybody spot the problem?


Seriously? Somebody put that copy together with that photo and thought “flesh-colored gown”? Someone edited that copy and didn’t think there was anything a bit off?

“Your marshmallow treat skin, your spun sugar sweet skin…”

I mean yes, it all looks completely obvious once it is called out. Right? Most well intentioned folks would see that it is kind of silly in this multicultural world to continue to use “flesh-colored” for anything, given the diversity of skin colors that are in the public eye on a daily basis.
[I will pause here for a science-y sidebar. You really should go over to Gene Expression and read razib’s posts on skin color determination. Start here and here, then go here, here, here.]
But presumably at least to the news team that wrote, edited and approved that article the error wasn’t obvious. It didn’t draw the editorial eye as would an error of spelling or grammar (one presumes). Even when it was in the context of a reasonably dark-skinned person, this color descriptor didn’t pop out. Amazing to some of us. A trigger for the old point-and-laugh-at-the-dumbass.

“…your mountain high apple pie, cookie dough rolled skin!”

But of course this is a greater object lesson that we can feel free to apply to ourselves. Ed Brayton recently referred to prior Vice Presidential candidate, former Alaska Governor and current book-tour media personality Sarah Palin as “an unhinged shrew”. Comrade PhysioProf objected and Ed Brayton dug in his heels. Isis and BikeMonkey have expounded in the expected directions, respectively. Ed has another reply here so if you are interested in the specifics you can go play where the action is.
What I find fascinating about these situations is the way something that is almost absurdly obvious to some as offensive is not even remotely on the radar of others. Far enough outside the box that even a champagne-tinted garment worn by the entirely fabulous Michelle Obama can be described as “flesh-colored” without remark.
What similarly obvious nonsense is off of your radar, Dear Reader?
[UPDATE: I really should have remembered to link an earlier post of PalMD’s about skin color in medical diagnosis.]
Quotes are from a delightful book: The skin you live in. M. Tyler and D. L. Csicsko. (Amazon; Chicago Children’s Museum; Independent Publishers Group)

No Responses Yet to “Flesh”

  1. PalMD Says:

    I know whiners are going to come by and say, “Lighten up, Drug” (word choice intended) but this is so fucking stupid! I would assume that rather than being Crayola #whatever, “flesh-colored” would be the same color as the antecedants flesh—the dress is clearly lighter than Mrs O.
    Whenever the right goes around whining about how none of the teabagging, etc is about race, a little piece of the inherent biases we breathe comes out, and I’m guessing that despite being a bucket of fail, most people will deny it means anything.


  2. Dan J Says:

    A facepalm is the only response I can really come up with regarding the original news item.
    I remember crayons in the early 1970s which were labeled “flesh”, but never looked like any skin tone that I had ever seen. Come to think of it, I don’t recall anything labeled “flesh-colored” that lived up to the label.


  3. NJ Says:

    Can I still say I have flesh-colored hair?


  4. Eugenie Says:

    Call me naïve, but I just assumed anything “flesh colored” to me is wearing clothing thats nearly the same hue as you (thus giving the illusion you’re naked). Meh, maybe it’s just me.


  5. David Says:

    I would expect flesh-colored to look like an uncooked steak.


  6. Ed Yong Says:

    I remember crayons in the early 1970s which were labeled “flesh”, but never looked like any skin tone that I had ever seen.

    Crayola famously changed its Flesh crayon to Peach in 1962, for precisely the reasons that DrugMonkey discusses. Probably also because peaches attract fewer zombies.


  7. DNLee Says:

    co-sign Eugenie. One can say/use flesh-colored to described something, but the term is relative not truly descriptive. It was wrong because the dress was obviously not Michelle Obama’s Flesh color, but presumably, the color of flesh of the author. You’re off the radar if you can’t see out or think outside of your bubble enough to recognize that your “nude” colored stockings may not be mine or someone else’s.


  8. Coriolis Says:

    Actually looking at that dress color, if the writer does in fact have flesh of the same color, they might want to go check a doctor. Unless they are dead already that is.


  9. Liz Says:

    Yes it seems silly in retrospect but I didn’t notice on the first read through. Honest mistake I’m sure.


  10. Stephanie Z Says:

    PalMD, it took no time at all for someone to ask me whether we weren’t–maybe–being oversensitive about PC stuff like this. I asked how oversensitive we needed to be to sympathize with the First Lady when she’s told her skin is the wrong color. I’m still waiting for an answer, but perhaps anyone who wants to be that contrarian here can answer the question.


  11. Eric Lund Says:

    I remember crayons in the early 1970s which were labeled “flesh”, but never looked like any skin tone that I had ever seen.
    I remember from my Cub Scout days (circa mid 1970s) that you could buy “flesh”-colored paint at hobby stores. I don’t know when or if that color was renamed (“peach” would be a reasonable alternative). And yes, it was a poor (to put it charitably) imitation of anyone’s real skin color.


  12. Art Says:

    Old enough to have seen the embalmed accountant color of Crayola’s ‘flesh’, a very pale tan with a bit of pink as I remember it, I think you have something of a point. Not all flesh, skin in this usage, is the same color and so the term , applied to a lady with a decidedly mocha tone, is somewhat inappropriate. Race cannot ever be forgotten as long as acceptance remains a cover for prejudice. So bully for you in spotting the underlying racist tone, even if it was probably inadvertent and fallout from the days gone by when ‘flesh’ meant colored like a Caucasian.
    On the other hand as far as implicit racist wording and potential ‘dog whistles’ go I think this was pretty insignificant. It would have had more weight if people didn’t know Mrs.O. was black or her ethnic background in question. Being an attractive black woman and proud of it is its own defense. And that pisses off the racists no end.


  13. MattXIV Says:

    I think it’s useful to distinguish between whether the “normal” reference is the self or white people, since the social implications of them are quite different.
    The first sentiment is less troublesome – everybody acts like they’re the center of the universe to a degree, that’s just human nature. It’s oblivious to reflect it in one’s actions, but the gap between the self and everyone else is an inescapable part of self-awareness and will always be reflected in people’s thoughts.
    A world view which places white people at the center of the universe is quite problematic. That distinction is neither inevitable nor useful.
    Now, the thorny question is distinguishing the two sentiments from each other – both deserve some degree of social sanction, but one is a universal phenomenon that will persist to a degree in any social context while the other is a reflection of a social norm that is possible and desirable to eliminate.

    Whenever the right goes around whining about how none of the teabagging, etc is about race, a little piece of the inherent biases we breathe comes out, and I’m guessing that despite being a bucket of fail, most people will deny it means anything

    Yes, there’s no better source of insight into the mind of the teabaggers than generally flattering but racially oblivious AP articles about the first lady’s dress choices.


  14. Donna B. Says:

    The kindest (to the writer) explanation for that bit of cringe-inducing prose is that she is a boiler-plate hack using trite and out-dated cliches. She should be fired.
    She managed to insult Mrs. Obama and the dress at the same time by sheer inattention.
    That dress is one of the most beautiful ball gowns I’ve seen in years. And years. Mrs. Obama wears it beautifully.


  15. leigh Says:

    i think with the range of flesh tones throughout the human population, it’s fairly ridiculous to try to pin down one as “flesh tone” – i see it as akin to saying that blue (or pick another) should be called “eye color” despite the multitude of other options.


  16. PalMD Says:

    Matt, the point that I did not make clearly is that racism, defined more broadly than “lynching”, is pervasive. Our biases are everywhere, even in a fashion piece, and despite the fact that this news story will do little harm, it helps point out that blindness to racially charged language is prevalent. Given that fact, for the teabaggers et al to deny that their much more floridly racist language is not “racial” is a farce (or bucket of fail, if you will).


  17. becca Says:

    I think Donna B. got to the real point of the story- it’s a stunningly beautiful gown, worn with particular flare.
    Also, it would look bizarre on someone who’s skin was that precise color.
    I am biased to think maybe the writer shouldn’t be fired. Educated yes, but fired, no. She goes on to describe how the style and designer are an appropriate homage to the Indian prime minister and his wife. Which leaves me just pickled tink, seeing as it’s very much the style (albeit *MUCH* more glamorous) that I ended up going with for an Indian wedding.
    On the other hand, a dress that took 40 people 3 weeks to make? There’s something vaguely squicky about that to me.


  18. I thought it was FINK hidden in the headline, and then checked if I was right before reading the text.


  19. So here I am, just checking Teh DM before turning in, and I read two posts that have my blood boiling (this and the administrative meddling in the Oklahoma State anthrax study).
    But first, thanks so much for suggesting Razib’s old posts for discussions of population genetics and how perception of race is also a function of the culture and psychology one comes from.
    Since I’ve spent the last 45 min reading those other five posts, let me share with you and your readers this lengthy treatise on the legal history of the “one-drop rule” of racism in our American South. It’s quite comprehensive, if not rambling, about how a smidgen of melanin (“hypodescent” I believe it’s now called) was used in all sorts of ways to justify (or not justify) discrimination, school segregation, etc.
    I’m so pissed off right now that I can’t even remember what I was going to say about the “flesh-colored” gown cluster fubar. Thanks for what I anticipate will be a good case of insomnia.


  20. Neuro-conservative Says:

    What similarly obvious nonsense is off of your radar, Dear Reader?

    It is ironic, though unsurprising, that PalMD persists in using a sexually-charged slur on this thread.


  21. Little Isis got a toy police station/fire house set tonight as a gift. All of the police and firemen (and they are men) inside are “flesh colored.”
    Obama’s dress, I think, is a little darker than my ankles though.


  22. A Reader Says:

    Can we still say that Barack’s tuxedo is ‘black’?


  23. DrugMonkey Says:

    Gold star to N-c for actually taking a stab at the assignment.
    Do expand though, since that link doesn’t provide any context beyond yours. Yes teabaggers is sexual in the sense that it involves naughty bits. But to my understanding it has to do with presumptively heterosexual fratboys playing tricks on their passed out bros. I am unaware of this being an actual sexual practice / preference that is associated with any specific group. From context do we conclude correctly that you associate this sufficiently with gay folk as to make it a homophobic slur? If so, certainly worth some self-reflection.


  24. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Maybe we should ask PalMD why he insists on using the term. Perhaps he will tell us that he means it “only in the nicest possible way.”


  25. Anonymous Says:

    Dearest Drug, you are off the mark, though not as badly as neuro-conservative. Teabagging is defined thusly. It is not a homophobic slur.
    The dimwitted political faction that believes we should never have to pay taxes called themselves teabaggers in reference to the Boston Tea Party–but they were too old/ignorant to realize that teabagging has a distinct meaning in the vernacular. Naturally, everyone else gets a laugh out of calling them teabaggers, except Fox which switched to tea partiers.


  26. The teabaggers earned that name when they sent teabags in the mail to the Senate. As political stunts go, that one is pretty much guaranteed to label you “teabagger.”


  27. becca Says:

    DM- I certainly associate it strongly with the homosexual community. Rachel Maddow’s coverage of the tea parties was absolutely fantastic. (also, the genders in the urbandictionary definition may in fact reflect the heterocentric nature of our society far better than the term. As will the people who have to look up why I mention Maddow and the homosexual community. And no boys, you can’t marry her, she’s mine /sarcasm)
    However, anon is right in one thing. Since “teabaggers” was definitely used by the tea-partiers as their own moniker first, I am left wondering who is really ignorant of the implications of the words they use.


  28. Oh that Anon @25 was me. Stupid forgetting the auto-fill. Becca, I first heard teabagging in a hetero context, so it’s not just urban dictionary’s slant. There’s nothing necessarily homo about it…


  29. A Reader Says:

    “homo”? Why is the chromosomal makeup of the teabagged orifice relevant? This discussion is turning into an example of exactly what DM was looking for.
    And as long as DM asked…
    This blog frequently defends animal use for biomedical research. It’s taken for granted here that animal slaughter and vivisection for intellectual gratification is justified. But from the point of view that a pig is a dog is a boy, it all sounds pretty bad. I suggest that animal rights is something that is off DM’s radar.
    Which brings us to the larger point: Whose radar are we talking about, DM? It’s OK to crack primate craniums to keep a Ph.D. from having to find another job, but calling Michelle Obama’s dress ‘flesh’ colored is offensive? What is the color of flesh, dear DM? Whose flesh? What species of flesh?


  30. Tsu Dho Nimh Says:

    Your pumpkin pie slice skin
    That would be the hepatitis patient with the bilirubin of 7.3 …


  31. Tybo Says:

    I, for one, fail to see how tea-bagging is associated with homosexuality (as a member of the minority group that should somehow be offended). Honestly, to associate it with homosexuality implies that BDSM somehow shares a closer tie to homosexuality than heterosexuality, and that in itself is more damaging.


  32. becca Says:

    Funny note- I was googling trying to support some argument which has gone clean out of my head, but I got “teabagging for Jesus”. Hallehluya! Probably that is offensive though. 😦


  33. The teabagger discussion reminds me that I didn’t do the prescribed assignment asked by Drug, but also how some words can be extremely offensive to some while seeming innocent to others.
    My offering is the word “dark” or “black” to describe something sinister or evil (the dark side, black magic) or something shameful or otherwise tawdry (our dark history). Villains portrayed in black garb.
    To some, darkness is traditional literary or film imagery for foreboding as evil things happening are rarely portrayed in daylight but rather during a howling thunderstorm. However, a great many people feel that the equation of darkness with evil is highly offensive.


  34. A Reader Says:

    Abel’s point is a demonstration of how this sort of PC thing goes too far. Being afraid of the dark is a sign of unconscious rasicm? This is silly.
    Abel: Can you come up with evidence that traditional sub-Saharan African societies systematically thought darkness and nighttime were not scary, or that they even saw these things as comforting? If so, I might be more inclined to think my uneasiness in dark places is a circuitously-expressed social bias. And I will then also start to wonder whether my fear of being smothered by a pillow reflects some unconscious hatred toward fat people.
    Back to (semi-) seriousness: The best examples of standard stuff with un-PC roots that I can think of are insulting to women. ‘Hysteria’ and ‘Vagina’, for example. I wonder if DM will stop using these words.


  35. Re 34 @A Reader – I disagree strongly that this is overly PC. Although I am not a member of the group that might take offense at the adjective “dark,” I am stating that I have increasingly interacted with individuals who do take offense at the use of “dark” to describe evil or shameful acts, particularly in a historical context.
    In fact, I just searched my own blog and found that on 20 Apr 2008 I used the word “dark” to refer to the Ludlow Massacre of Colorado coalfield workers in 1914 in the following phrase, “this dark yet important episode in US labor history.” I would not do that today in recognition that, since then, I have learned that such a modifier is offensive to individuals I know, love, and respect.
    This actually came up at NPR in 2008 when veteran reporter, Jean Cochran, used “dark continent” in referring to President Bush’s visit to Africa. The NPR ombudsman, Alicia Shepard (who uses “ombudsman” instead of “ombudsperson”) addressed how Cochran was taken aback by angry e-mail and phone calls in, “Should NPR Have Apologized for ‘Dark Continent?'”

    “I had no idea the term would be found offensive,” said Cochran, who joined NPR in 1981. “I will concede antiquated but I was unaware it was ‘racist and irredeemable,’ as one person put it in an email. I was floored. Am I insensitive? I don’t know how that could be since I didn’t know there was anything to be sensitive about. I understood the term to refer to the African jungle. It’s a canopy blocking out the light. A geographical term.”

    Cochran is correct in one sense. Originially, the term “dark continent” came into use in the 19th century to describe a continent largely unknown and mysterious to Europeans. Explorer Henry M. Stanley used it in his 1878 book, Through the Dark Continent.

    In fact, it is still used today, but in context. Because of the dearth of electricity on much of the continent, satellite imaging from outer space depicts much of Africa at night as literally a dark continent. An article in The Economist last July, on how investors view Africa, refers to it as the “dark continent.” “With all this concern of offending people, it is important for people to understand why and where the term exists,” said Neal Weintraub, an author of four books on investing, who provided NPR The Economist example.

    Nonetheless, while it may have been a romantic phrase in the 19th century, it is more commonly thought of as an archaic expression, especially if not used in historical context.

    The book, Talking About People, notes that such phrases as “the dark continent,” and “darkest Africa” are Eurocentric, ethnocentric and even historically inaccurate. Only 20 percent of the continent is forested. Metaphorically, says the book, Africa is unknown only to those who don’t live there.

    My feeling is that if other words might suffice without sacrificing accuracy, why not choose the word least likely to offend? In the case of my own blogpost, “shameful” history would still very accurately describe the Ludlow Massacre, and might even be superior to using “dark.”. I don’t think it’s overly PC; in fact, I think that it shows compassion to be able to admit that a term previously unrecognized by me (due to the blinding by my white male privilege) as offending another group, and then modify my own writing.


  36. A Reader Says:

    Abel: I actually agree that a reference to Africa as the ‘Dark Continent’ is somewhat offensive. But not because of the word ‘dark’ so much as the overall outdated connotation that Africa is mysterious and uncivilized (or even more ignorant: all jungle). Africans 2000-4000 years ago could have said the same about Europe (and maybe they did). At least Europe was actually mostly forested back then.
    This should have nothing to do with your (as I perceive it) overall argument that associating darkness with scariness is necessarily offensive. The statement, ‘it was dark and scary’ should not be cause for concern. Especially if such shallow concern causes one to overlook much more insidiously damaging stereotypes, such as ‘rich people tend to be smarter than poor people’, ‘backward civilizations have relatively short life expectancy’, and ‘humans evolved from apes’.


  37. DSKS Says:

    “Can we still say that Barack’s tuxedo is ‘black’?”
    Certainly, because it is “black”. But Michelle’s dress wasn’t “flesh-coloured”, which was a funny journalistic slip in a “darkly” humorous sort of way.
    “I don’t think it’s overly PC; in fact, I think that it shows compassion to be able to admit that a term previously unrecognized by me (due to the blinding by my white male privilege) as offending another group, and then modify my own writing.”
    Don’t go overboard though, or you end up coming across like the kind of self-hating upper class white racist caricature that thinks movies like Crash make for compelling and accurate social commentary.
    “In the case of my own blogpost, “shameful” history would still very accurately describe the Ludlow Massacre, and might even be superior to using “dark.”
    Well, “dark” and “shameful” are not synonyms, and the use of “dark” in this particular context is not actually that easily substituted without using several additional modifiers, which is why it’s frequently used as literary device. Is the effort really necessary to substitute it though? I’m sorry, but you really are stretching it with this example.
    If it makes you feel any better, there are few cultures of any race in which a lack of light is not to some extent synonymous with the sinister, uncertain, and malevolent; the limitations of human visual biology being common to us all.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: