My Yellow Ochre Skin; a Critique on Colonial Ideas of Color and Race
Take a moment to set aside any preconceived notion of race, good or bad, personal or cultural, and look at your skin very closely. Ask yourself what color is your skin, really? A photo might help. If you were an artist, intending on painting your skin, what color of paint would you reach for as the base. What might that paint be called?
When you look closely, you may notice there are many different shades and colors in your skin that change with lighting or sun exposure. Your skin may be one color in one room or lighting, and another color somewhere else. To get each part to match the right color, you would have to mix with other paints no matter what, so just look for an average to start from.
The color I would turn to as a base right now is “yellow ochre.” I have been in the sun a fair amount these past few months and have a bit of a tan. With less of a tan I might use “naples yellow” instead. Either way, I am sort of yellow, sort of beige, with some pinkish or brownish bits…
So why is my skin called white?
It’s quite clearly not white. My teeth and parts of my eyes are sort of white, but not my skin. If I painted my skin with white paint it would give it a strange, otherworldly, and ghostly look.
If I were to paint another person whose skin more closely matches a base of “raw umber” why would people say that person has black skin? If I were to paint their skin with black paint it would also look very strange.
Neither of us are colored white or black. Yet I am called white, and they are called black. Why?
The history here is nasty, and comes out of colonialism.
Europeans did not start calling themselves “white,” until after they started calling people they were doing horrible things to in Sub-Saharan Africa “black.”
It was only after another group of people were called “black,” that Europeans started calling themselves “white.” This change took place during the early colonial period. Prior to that, as in ancient Rome and Greece, the notions in Europe of how people were categorized was not based on color, but had more to do with places and ancestors.
Some of my mostly Celtic and Anglo-Saxon ancestors perpetrated horrible exploitations, others fought against some of them, but likely most of my colonial and post colonial ancestors used “black” and “white” to describe people. This article is not about the sins or virtues of the ancestors, but a critique on the continued use of a colonial idea to use abstract color terms to describe people.
When people are called white or black, we are already entering into colonial thinking, because that is when people began to be labeled by abstract color terms like white, black, yellow, and red. And what’s more, we are entering into the realm of color symbolism.
According to the anthropologist Victor Turner, color symbolism has cross cultural significance that is deeper than race, or even gender, and affects us in many unconscious ways. We can see some of these unconscious things at work by examining our associations with white or black. Not in people, but in things, animals, or moods.
A white dove might represent spirit or peace, but a group of black crows are called a “murder.” Dark moods are seen as bad, stupid, or dangerous. Light moods are seen as good, smart, or offer safety. Bad things might be thought to happen in dark wild forests but not in bright shining cities on hills. White things are thought of as clean and pure, while black things might be dirty or tainted. In classic western movies the good guy wears a white hat and the bad guy wears a black hat, regardless of their skin tone. Or more recently in star wars with the light side and dark side of the force… With all this though, it is still not so black and white, as white is the color of bones, and black the color of rich and fertile soil; and there are many other positive associations with black, and many other negative associations with white…
These associations, personal or cultural, are not really about people or race. The examples I gave were about birds, the force, fairytale settings, hats in movies, and other objects. Western civilization is especially biased against the dark, but many of these associations of light and dark are shared with cultures of all races. They belong to deeper and older parts of our psyche, that predate racism, predate colonialism, and appear in our oldest mythologies as fundamental forces of the universe, around the world.
So when colonial exploiters encountered people in Sub-Saharan Africa, and labeled them “black” they could offload their unconscious projections of the troubling things about their personal and cultural view on blackness and darkness onto some other people, thereby enabling their exploitation, while feeling the whiteness and light in themselves. I think of this projection as a kind of original sin of racism.
And so the colonialists might say things like, “they are black people, and we are white people. They are savages, and we are civilized. They are bad and we are good. We are lawful by nature and they are criminal. They are dark and animalistic, we are light and cultured. They are dim, and we are enlightened”… These hypothetical statements are obviously and horrendously racist, and they also come directly out of western civilizations color associations of black and white, light and dark. We can also see how it sets up a polarity where everything that is excluded from white gets put into black.
Many of the worst atrocities of racism came into being after people were grouped by abstract colors, rather than of place and ancestry. And so white supremacy was born. We do not say, European supremacy, Germanic supremacy, Frankish supremacy, or Anglo-Saxon supremacy, but white supremacy. A supremacy of an abstract color.
I believe that racial prejudice is fed, in no small part, by a liberalization of the symbolic color issues of our culture. Issues that produce unconscious projections onto people that we call black. But the projections might really be about our associations with the color black and darkness. Projections that actual people do not deserve, and are causing tremendous injustices.
Purity has strong color associations with white, cross culturally, and so it is in the nature of the color white not to admit any other color, or it loses its whiteness. And so white supremacists, be they in the 16th century or the 21st, have been obsessed with racial purity and trying to keep the races separate. I believe their strong identification with whiteness may be feeding this obsession.
But none of these white supremacists are really white. The absurdity of the symbolic purity of whiteness when applied to actual people is incredibly obvious when looking closely at the actual color, or rather colors, of pale skin.
In fact, the paler the skin, the more colors you need to work with in order to paint it. Because pale skin is more transparent and shows undertones of blood and veins, and reflects light differently. So you need blues, reds, purples, and browns…
We can, and absolutely should, de-literalize our associations of black and white, light and dark; in things, moods, or ideas, so they have less of an influence on how we unconsciously relate to people of light or dark skin. It’s critically important that we do.
But I also think we should move away from describing people in terms of abstract colors. If someone today were to call a Native American a “red man,” it would be rightly seen as backwards and racist. Yet we use the terms “black man” and “white man” all the time without a second thought. The symbolic baggage of color terms is very deep, very unconscious, and very insidious.
There is an enormous divide between black and white color symbolism. There is even an enormous divide in the physics of color. The whitest light contains all colors and thus transcends all colors, while the blackest black is the absence of light or its reflection. Even in the physics of light there is a kind of white supremacy.
However, symbolically, everyone is really every color, because the symbolism in colors are part of the makeup of our shared humanity. There are some differences, but for the most part, a great deal of color symbolism is shared among cultures from all corners of the globe. In a similar metaphoric way James Hillman once said “We are all people of color; one of the 20,000” In that way I am sometimes white, sometimes black, but more often blue or purple, and occasionally yellow or red. I asked my four year old what color he was and he said “Rainbow! All the colors!” so he gets it.
But if we are all people of color when talking about skin, then I am not white. I don’t think anyone really is. My skin color is yellow ochre.
Considering myself to be a person of yellow ochre color, has a different feel to it than the colonial idea that I am white.
Ochre is a natural pigment, mostly of iron oxide with a few other minerals that change its hue. It is made of common minerals in the earth and it shows up all over the world. And so in my ochre-ness, I am connected in a way to the whole planet, the earth itself, through color. And in cave paintings colored with ochre, I also have ancestors going back over 25,000 years. We are Ochre people!
As a person of yellow ochre color, I feel a strange kind of connection, through pigment, with the Himba people in Namibia in southern Africa. Because the Himba women cover themselves in red ochre.
When imagined in this way, the weight of color symbolism fades and a compassionate attitude blossoms without effort. We have different ancestors, different environments, and lead very different lives, but we are still cousins in pigment. Instead of being divided by color, we have a connection through color pigments that are distinct yet related.
The same earth gives us the color to adorn or paint our skin. The chemistry of our two pigments separated by only small differences in minerals, as opposed to polar opposites.
Her skin is red ochre, and my skin is yellow ochre, and that is a much smaller divide than white and black.
An Artist Finds True Skin Colors in a Diverse Palette
This story is part of The Race Issue, a special issue ofNational Geographic that explores how race defines, separates…
Nell Irvin Painter's title, "The History of White People," is a provocation in several ways: it's monumental in sweep…
Myths of Light and Dark
No left without a right. No up without a down. No inside without an outside. Opposites give each other meaning and are…
Hillman, J. (1986). “Notes on white supremacy: The alchemy of racism.” Spring, 29–58. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications.