The Color of My Skin (and Yours)

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Happy MLK Day, people. Today calls for an entirely different spin on color: race. It’s been painfully clear for centuries how much tiny gradations in skin color can matter. How far has design advanced in racial equality – and where do we need to keep pushing for progress?

LICRA campaign, via Design You Trust

In the latter half of President Obama’s first term (and early in the tenure of our first Latina Supreme Court Justice), and right after Oprah launches her own TV network, it’s tempting to suggest (as many pundits have) that we live in a post-racial America. People of color finally ascending to society’s peaks definitely matters – but those shining, singular examples shouldn’t obscure all the regular folks struggling at the wide bottom of the mountain.

I love the campaign above by the French non-profit LICRA (International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism). This is a gut-punch we should all feel viscerally: who would want their baby’s infinite prospects constrained from birth by the inevitable tug of race?

Tide “Don’t Let Your Colours Mix” campaign, “Gardener” and “Spy”via Ads of the World

Of course, it’s easy to love a straight advocacy campaign that comes squarely on the right side of the racial-equality question. Humor that touches on race in more oblique ways gets decidedly murkier. How should we react to Tide’s “Don’t Let Your Colours” mix campaign by Spain’s Vitruvio Leo Burnett (above)?

Debates around ads like these always seem to split into camps around a single axis: historical recency. Both defenders and detractors levy the same question: in the case of “Gardener”, are (or aren’t) we sufficiently past the dark era of miscegenation laws where we can joke about them?

Historical “recency” runs deep, though. The Yellow Star of David patch hearkens back to early medieval sumptuary laws. The Nazis proved unearthing old symbology can bolster a racist movement’s claims to historical provenance and refresh a hateful symbol’s relevance to a new generation. (Here Print’s own Steve Heller deserves a shout-out: his book The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? is a must-read and newly available in Kindle format.)

Historical recency matters with ambiguous jokes of the Tide stamp – but what matters more is telegraphing one’s intention in making a joke or commentary. Can we trust this communicator has unblemished motives? (If we’ve made progress on this point, it’s in not automatically ascribing questionable motives to majority commentators – or letting all minority commentators get off scot-free.) Is the joke’s racial spin gratuitous or essential to its point? What modern gloss – or bad taste – on those deeper historical facts does the joke leave us with?

Because it seems cowardly not to opine, here’s my vote: I like the Tide campaign, but I’m not wholly convinced by it. I like it because the campaign’s concept extends from racially charged spots like “Gardener” to other witty historical color-puns, like the pinko Commies of “Spy”. I do wish that bleached-white family weren’t flouncing so shamelessly down the walk with the pale-green girl in tow, while the green true-paternal overalls kneel almost sorrowfully behind. If the gardener gave one to the missus unbeknownst to the breadwinner, I’d like that fact underlined more clearly as a sly triumph – although I’m not sure a child lost to a secret affair can ever be spun as an exactly spritely theme.

Incidentally, Spain is the same country where Conguitos candy, a Little Sambo-style character, still reigns in the sweets aisle. What’s the best way to wrestle with well-established – even well-loved – brands rooted in a racially charged past? I can empathize with marketers, who hesitate to torpedo decades of brand investment yet struggle to render a questionable mascot more acceptable to modern consumers. Conguitos’ solution involved tinkering with character design: slimming down his thick lips, removing his tribal spear, and introducing a milky-white companion, presumably for the white-chocolate candies. In 2007 Uncle Ben (of Rice fame) got dressed up in a CEO-caliber suit and situated in a board room. Neither approach is wildly successful, I’d say.

Uncle Ben, Board Chairman via New York Times and Design Observer

I wrote about the Human Pantone Project by Pierre David not too long ago, and I still admire its simple elegance. It’s a strong visual reminder of two contradictory facts: while human skin tones vary a lot less than our black-and-white terminology suggest, there’s gorgeous variations of hue within that narrow spectrum.

The Human Pantone by Pierre David via Coolist< /p>

It’s fascinating to juxtapose this project with a more dubious parallel affair, the Michael Jackson Pantone Color Guide. Again, it’s a question of accurately signaled intention: what deeper point could this not-very-funny joke about one of MJ’s most famous eccentricities actually make, other than simple mockery?

I’d love to see designers plunge into the rich historical trove of what it really meant to live as a person of color in America in less forgiving times. The Negro Motorist’s Green Book – recently revived thanks to a play of the same name by Calvin Alexander Ramsey – derives considerable power from its matter-of-factness. This downloadable PDF of the 1949 edition of the Green Book will break your heart a little with its frank, humbly mimeographed tips as to which establishments nationwide welcomed black travelers (and which didn’t). “For some travelers,” runs the 1949 edition’s introduction, “[travel] facilities of many of these places are not available, even though they may have the price, and any traveler to whom they are not available is thereby faced with many and sometimes difficult problems.” End of complaint. That kind of level-headed pragmatism still amazes.

Where design still needs a giant step forward is in fostering diversity within the profession. We live in design’s arguably most democratic moment: mainstream consumers’ visual literacy keeps widening, even as the face of America’s demographic future darkens in its hue. A capable white designer can theoretically communicate successfully across racial lines – but what creative powers are we failing to mine if design doesn’t attract a more diverse spectrum of young colleagues?

I’m eager to see how a higher profile for designers of color could change their profession and the prevailing public conversation about race, not to mention how they’ll (hopefully) advance an actually post-racial America. I’m intrigued by the work of Stephen Burks, a black American designer whose Readymade Project has engages artisans in Peru and South Africa to make housewares for several years now. Another Stephen – Burrows – is worth watching for his extremely sharp clothes.

Giampetro + Smith consider the race question in this excellent essay about the typefaces Neuland and Lithos (pictured above), which now inescapably signal “African” and “African-American” to the point of ghettoization. I just discovered the fantastically named Kiss My Black Ads and Design in Color and bookmarked both. I also ordered Taschen’s 2008 book Latin American Graphic Design and Gestalten’s 2010 release, Latino Gráfico. (What’s up with the Germans beating us to the punch as to our own continent’s Hispanic powerhouses? Tell me I’m missing some great American-published title on this topic.)

On the non-design front, I’m a long-time fan of TheRoot, a companion site to Slate (to which I also contribute frequently). The Root is aimed at readers of color, but its dry humor, always-on smarts and calm skepticism about silo-ing any issue as merely “racial” reminds me of Slate’s DoubleX coverage, which respects women’s intelligence in much the same way. A great starter post from TheRoot is The Blackest White Folks We Know, a slideshow weighing the legitimacy of claims by non-black celebrities to their supposed “black-factor”. What other people, sites and discussions are missing from this list?