Sins of the flesh

Theresa Bruskin

Michelle Obama’s fashion choices are often the target of unwarranted media attention, and her gown at last week’s state dinner is no exception.

An Associated Press story said this: “First lady Michelle Obama chose to wear a gleaming silver-sequined, flesh-colored gown Tuesday night to the first state dinner held by her husband’s administration.”

See the problem?

Lisa at Sociological Images describes it perfectly: “This is what happens when white people are considered people and black people are considered a special kind of people: black people. “Flesh-colored” becomes the skin color associated with whites and darker-skinned peoples are left out of the picture altogether.”

The AP eventually changed the story’s wording to exclude the term “flesh-colored,” but that’s not really the point.

A preliminary Google search reveals that Webster’s New World dictionary defines the term as “having the typical color of a person’s skin, esp. a white person’s skin” and defines it as “having a bright red or pinkish color.”

There are tons of everyday examples of this. Band-Aids are called flesh-colored but made to match Caucasian skin. Johnson & Johnson markets a lotion labeled for “normal to darker skin.”

To be honest, I wouldn’t have noticed the problem of describing the dress that way if it hadn’t been pointed out. And therein lies the issue, because a) most people overlook the use of the term, and b) “flesh-colored,” because of its widespread usage, does bring up images of Caucasian skin.

I’m not going to discuss the cliché “in 100 years Caucasian skin will be the minority” claim, because I think that’s altogether irrelevant to this phenomena. Being white shouldn’t be viewed as the norm, regardless of numbers. Just look at South Africa: “Whites” make up about 10 percent of the population, and yet, until recently barred everyone else from power. It is attitudes, not percentages that are important.

Sociological Images calls this the “neutrality of whiteness.” It’s also part of the meaning of privilege – being able to assume that your identity is the norm and anyone else’s should be labeled otherwise, all while not being aware of the problem in the first place.

Take Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson’s column about Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings this summer: “Republicans’ outrage, both real and feigned, at Sotomayor’s musings about how her identity as a ‘wise Latina’ might affect her judicial decisions is based on a flawed assumption: that whiteness and maleness are not themselves facets of a distinct identity. Being white and male is seen instead as a neutral condition, the natural order of things. Any ‘identity’ – black, brown, female, gay, whatever – has to be judged against this supposedly ‘objective’ standard.”

This takes us back to Michelle Obama’s dress. The problem with using a term like “flesh-colored,” is that it ignores that fact that not all flesh is peach-toned.

This goes along with the idea that male pronouns can be used as stand-ins for any individual, an idea that society, and journalism especially, has thankfully rejected. We also see this in extending the use of the term “partner” rather than “husband” or “wife” to heterosexual as well as same-sex couples.

Flesh-colored, and other terms that refer to white as the norm should be treated no differently.

This is a slight digression, but I also find it interesting that we as a society are overly sensitive about words or images that could hint at the idea of sex in any way, while practically negligent in monitoring words (like flesh-colored) or images (like ads that liken black women to animals) with racist undertones. Somehow it’s more important to stem the very thought of sex than to interfere with the continuance of privilege.

Theresa Bruskin is a senior political science major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected]