Crayola Monologues (2003) uses the crayon as a human metaphor for exploring color and identity in the United States. This animated video features crayons expressing how color hierarchies have shaped their lives. These crayons live in a world much like our own, complete with prejudice, class boundaries, social hierarchies and those who fall between the lines. Crayola Monologues also reveals the politics behind Crayola label changes, and gives a voice to the previously unheard perspective of crayons.
Color Studies (2004) brings together three works that question the construction of race as it relates to identity, skin color, perception, categories, and hierarchies in U.S. American culture. Gallery 111, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY.
Read more about Crayola Monologues:
- Children: Crayons as expression, education, control
- Labels and meaning
- Social metaphors
- Eurocentrism: Prussian Blue relabeled Midnight Blue
- White standard: Flesh relabeled Peach
- Marginalization: Indian Red relabeled Chestnut
- The power of mass media
In the spring of 2003, I created Crayola Monologues, a piece that explores the relationship of crayons to racial identity; each crayon has a pigment and is literally wrapped in a label. This work grew out of an investigation into the pedagogical implications of a flesh standard and color terminology. In this section I will examine Crayola Monologues in its relation to categories, hierarchies, social norms, mass media power, white privilege, and marginalization.
“Color” is a very loaded term. It functions to describe a visual property of an object, and functions as a verb: “to color.” Being a person “of color” or one that is “colored” signifies a political agenda that uses color as a racial association. “Colorful” can describe something animated, lively, or vibrant, as well as a euphemism for explicit. As a word, “color” has a long history of being used as a metaphor for racial divides. The term signifies a wide variety of contexts, emotions, race, and other constructs, underscoring the complexity of its meaning.
In Crayola Monologues, I use the crayon as a metaphor for exploring race in the United States. It is an experimental animation picturing individual crayons expressing how the history of color hierarchies has shaped their lives and identities. The crayons are anthropomorphized in a world much like our own, complete with prejudice, class boundaries, social hierarchies and those who fall between the lines. Crayola Monologues references history, education systems, white supremacy, and children, in an attempt to create a new mode for discussing identity in the United States.
A little bit of wax and pigment wrapped in a label goes a long way. Crayons have been used for the last hundred years to draw everything from people and their families to the sun, moon, and stars. A child’s first opportunity to draw, or to color, may very well be with a crayon. The image a child draws may come from the imagination, or simply a printed book of outlines ready to be brought to life with color. The notion that color might bring something to life attributes to color a type of miraculous power that inspires the mind, the hand, and the eye in a coordinated affair to create art. The child’s drawing might be crude or abstract, it may be a visualization of fun, a scene of family, or it could also be a personal representation of loss or fear. No matter what the result, the crayon is a tool, an instrument, a medium designed to foster creative expression.
Crayola crayons are produced by Binney & Smith Company, USA, incorporated in 1902 in
Eastmon , Penssylvania, by Edward Binney and C. Harold Smith. The Crayola name, coined by Edwin Binney’s wife Alice, comes from “craie,” the French word for chalk, and “ola,” from “oleaginous.” Binney & Smith Co. creates information technology products for the educational environment. The company was selling pencils and chalk before making crayons, both intended for the educational market. Its products allow students to draw, write, and communicate. Children use their products in school to diagram sentence structure on a chalkboard, take notes, write an essay, or draw an illustration. All of these processes are elements in the institutionalized educational system in the United States.
For example, a teacher may instruct students to draw their favorite animal. Perhaps the child decides to draw the family cat and will choose colors from the box to begin drawing. As the artist, the student may decide to begin with an outline and then color in the body of the animal. They may intend to represent the object as realistically as possible, that is, to draw the object as she or he perceives it to be. If to the child, the cat looks brown and yellow, they may undoubtedly look for the crayon that to them appears brown and another that appears yellow, or if able to read, they may read the label. If the child is small and the cat is large, the cat may be drawn as a menacing beast. Or if the cat is just a small kitten, the image may yield a tiny cat on a large empty sheet of paper. The representation of the cat is informed by the artist’s perception and intent, but also by the tools themselves. The crayon itself isn’t a precision instrument; the tip of the crayon changes every time it touches the paper. The pressure and speed of the stroke affect line quality, and even the texture of the paper can determine the look and feel of the work.
Crayons are educational in many ways. As quickly as children discover that crayons can be used on almost any solid surface, they are quickly taught to use crayons only on paper. The act of drawing on other mediums such as walls, refrigerators, or other children, could lead to chaos, an unpredictable deviation from order. When using coloring book templates, children are taught to draw inside the lines. If a child does not obey the designated boundaries and draws outside of them, she or he will likely be told to draw inside rather than outside of the lines. On a fundamental level, the instruction to draw inside the lines enacts an ideology, a power that desires to contain and control. While the crayon is designed as a tool for fostering creativity, this creativity is limited by social norms. Crayons can be a behavioral teaching tool, used to instruct young minds how they should act and even view the world.
In 1903, Binney & Smith sold its first set of Crayola crayons.
, a box of eight colors. [ I took this information from crayola.com, but am told from a Crayola collector there were actually 38 original colors. Even so, the idea of limiting an infinite palette remains ] This box, in effect, defined the Crayola color palette to be eight colors, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown and black. This box set simplifies color into vague categories, whereas color, the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, consists of an infinite number of gradations. But general categories for color were used because they were practical. How could there be a set of crayons with an infinite number? The categories work to group similar colors. But how similar? Where are the boundaries? Are there only eight colors ? What about the in-betweens? What is color halfway between red and orange called? The color between red-orange and orange? Red-orange-orange and orange?
In 1949, Binney & Smith began introducing new colors into their line-up. Among these early additions were Orange Yellow, Yellow Orange, Blue Green, Green Blue, and other combination colors. These new crayons increased the resolution from the limited eight original colors. But even within the combination colors there is a degree of priority; how much more orange is Orange Yellow from Yellow Orange? Blue Green versus Green Blue? Surely these combinations are not equal amounts of each pigment. Why else would they make the opposite compliments? In any case, it shows that Binney & Smith was aware of a certain sense of hierarchy or priority in their labeling system. For crayons with two word titles, placing a name first on the label implies that that name represents the more significant, important, or sizable portion of the crayon. Noting that Binney & Smith was conscious of their labeling system is a key factor in understanding the significance of these labels, and more importantly, future changes made to these labels.
As Binney & Smith introduced new crayons they needed to invent names to label these colors. These new labels referenced not only the abstract colors such as Red, Blue, and Green, but now used names that referenced real objects, things everyone would be familiar with, such as Brick Red, Olive Green, Carnation Pink. These colors referenced the collective perception of the color of these objects. When we look at a brick it has a red color to it that is similar but at the same time different from other things that are also considered “red,” i.e. roses, blood or a cardinal. Similarly, an olive looks “green” but different than the “green” of a frog or a lime. There was also the conceptual color Spring Green, possibly referencing fresh, new plant life growing during the spring season. Spring Green, therefore, was representative of many different green colors, an idea, the green essence of springtime. These new labels developed a complex signifying system based in perception, metaphor, and language.
Although they are simple tools, crayons raise serious issues related to the larger social context. The history of crayons and color in this discussion parallel the construction of race, categories, perception, purity, hierarchies, and segregation. Categories for both color and race are culturally constructed based on perception and the idea that pure forms exist. Color and race have been constructed hierarchically and segregated to separate a range of variation into discreet groups. The idiom “color inside the lines” metaphorically supports racial segregation, social and cultural borders, and perpetuates a philosophy against cultural hybridization, crossing borders, or straying from social norms.
In Crayola Monologues, I based the crayon world on the traditional color wheel that names red, blue, and yellow as “primary” colors. As red is mixed with yellow it results in orange. A mix of blue and yellow results in green. Orange and green are considered “secondary” colors in the color hierarchy. As secondary colors are mixed they result in “tertiary” colors, etc. The video consists of ten monologues, the first seven revealing how this hierarchical system affects their identity. The final three monologues are unique in that they reveal three labels that were changed. Each of these label changes reveals significant social issues.
The first label to change
in Crayola history was Prussian Blue. The monologue for this crayon critiques the quality of her education, “They didn’t teach us about it when I was in school, I had to study it for myself. So many crayons are ignorant of their history, and we wonder why?” Crayola.com states that Prussian Blue was relabeled Midnight Blue because of “teachers’ requests.” While this is ambiguous as to subject: the company’s motive, other sources say that teachers felt children were no longer familiar with Prussian history enough to associate the color with the blue of Prussian soldiers’ uniforms. This first label change in Binney & Smith history underscores the company’s understanding of the significance of these labels in the hands of children. Teachers recognized that the labels meant something, were didactic, beyond their use as mere drawing utensils. Children are very curious as they navigate the world around them, asking question after question. It is also curious why Prussia had been dropped from the teaching curriculum. Prussia was the most prominent military, industrial and political state of Germany prior to World War II. In 1947, the Allied Control Council formally abolished the state of Prussia. Some say this act was intended “as a blow against the spirit of German militarism and aggression, long held to be connected with Prussia” (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2001). A few years after the German state of Prussia no longer existed, Binney & Smith named one of their crayons after the distinct Prussian Blue of its soldiers’ uniforms. Some said the distinct colors of soldiers’ uniforms made it very easy for machine gunners to know exactly who they were shooting: “…the machine guns of World War I caused the Prussian blue, French grey and Mantua purple of the nineteenth century to give way to khaki, olive drab or field grey…” (Dervis 2000). Perhaps the lack of instruction in schools regarding Prussia was linked to bad war memories of German militaristic power. In any case, the Crayola label Prussian Blue was meaningless to students who knew nothing of its history. If Binney & Smith wanted to make a crayon that more effectively referenced German militaristic power, I suggest a more poignant reference, Nazi Red. Whether this was the intent or not, Binney & Smith decided to change the label to Midnight Blue, a much more ambiguous, conceptual color, without any political weight. However, a critical component to understanding the significance of this label change is lost without viewing the crayon in its context. When Prussian Blue was added to the crayon box nine years earlier, it was joined by several other new crayons. The most notable of these imports was the problematic Flesh crayon. Flesh was renamed four years after Prussian Blue, assigning a certain priority to Prussian Blue as more deserving of change than the Flesh crayon. This reference to European history upstaging a crayon as problematic as the Flesh crayon is a clear example of endemic Eurocentric white privilege.
Dervis, Peter. 2000. “The Uniform: Symbol of a Classless Society?” Made To Measure. Retrieved February 5, 2004, from http://www.madetomeasuremag.com/features/pre2003/951412715.html
“Prussia.” [Online] The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Editon. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Retrieved February 5, 2004, from http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/P/Prussia.asp
The Flesh colored crayon is a contradiction. How can one single color represent human skin, something that comes in such a wide variety of colors? In the video, the Peach crayon complains about having his label changed:
In the good ol’ days they called crayons like me the Flesh colored crayons. But then all them dirty minor colors and that Crayon Rights Movement, they actually forced us to change our labels to freakin’ Peach, you believe that? Like some kinda sissy fruit… peach…
Crayola.com states that the Flesh crayon was “voluntarily changed to Peach in 1962, partially as a result of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.” The fact that the color called Flesh was changed to Peach suggests that it was not originally intended to represent all the colors of human skin, but merely those with light, peach colored skin (read: white skin). The Flesh crayon assumed white skin to be a universal, standard flesh tone. The term “flesh” refers to the largest organ of the human body, the skin. The Flesh crayon, because of its connection to the body as a sign of humanity, marginalizes the humanity of those whose skin doesn’t match the crayon. What seemed natural to those who created the Flesh crayon, in fact, revealed a bias that developed from, and fueled, the oppression of those who didn’t fit their standard. When Binney & Smith changed the name of this crayon, they acknowledged, the power of the label and its error.
The Flesh crayon represents a legacy of privileged white skin representing the normative human standard. The construction of the white standard by the eighteenth century scientific community declared white skin the pinnacle of the racial hierarchy:
The most temperate climate lies between the 40th and 50th degree of latitude, and it produces the most handsome and beautiful men. It is from this climate that the ideas of the genuine color of mankind, and of the various degrees of beauty ought to be derived. (Buffon as quoted by Gould 1996: 71)
The same man that labeled the human race “homo sapiens” also described categories within the species. Homo sapiens americanus (Native American) was described as “ill tempered…obstinate, contented, free,” homo sapiens asiaticus (Asian) as “severe, haughty, desirous,” homo sapiens afer (African) as “crafty, slow, foolish,” and homo sapiens europaeus (European) as “active, very smart, inventive” (Olsen 2001: 69-80). The racial categories still used today are rooted in this hierarchical thinking. On the origin of the term “Caucasian”:
I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, and because . . . in that region, if anywhere, we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones [ original forms ] of mankind. (Blumenbach as quoted by Gould 1996: 401) Culturally biased definitions were commonplace in the scientific construction of race and demonstrate how whites were “scientifically” defined as the highest form of humanity.
The term “white” reinforces color hierarchies and its position at the top. In his book titled “White,” Richard Dyre, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Warwick, describes how the symbolic color white in Western culture connotes “purity, spirituality, transcendence, cleanliness, virtue, simplicity, chastity” (1997: 72). Classic imagery of a cowboy hero in a white hat overcoming a villain in a black mask polarize white and black as representations of good and evil. The black mask connotes mystery and danger, and therefore chaos, the antithesis of rational order. The term “white” functions as propaganda for white supremacy when even albino skin isn’t truly “white.” Skin that has little pigment allows the blood under the skin to show through, making the skin appear pink. Dyre suggests terms like “pink” and “olive” as a substitute to describe the skin color of white people “partly because they are less loaded, partly because this would break up the monolithic identity, whiteness.” He continues saying, “…the one term and its loading and its designation of a group not ineluctably tied to geographical origin are crucial to our understanding of white people’s hold on privilege and power” (1997:44).
In television commercials, advertisers tell consumers their teeth aren’t white enough, clothes aren’t bright enough, kitchens aren’t clean enough. They sell products to keep these things white and bright. These uses of the term define white as clean, pure, the ideal state, a blank slate. Any color that isn’t “pure” white is often labeled “off-white.” Off-white describes the color’s distance from white, rather than describing the color by a unique term. In art, the term “value” is used to describe the amount of white or black in a color. The terms themselves reflect the ideology that posits white as superior.
Manifestations of the white flesh standard have become normalized within dominant culture to the point of invisibility. One example tied to the white skin standard is the Band-Aid. Its original advertising claims it “blends with flesh.” The color of the Band-Aid is an attempt to match white skin. All the Band-Aids in the package are the same color, mass-produced using some combination of dyes to produce this “flesh” tone. Attaching the term “flesh” to this one color creates the illusion of a universally standard skin tone. A standard is a measure by which others can be judged, positioning all nonwhites as deviant or abnormal. The slogan “blends with flesh” has been removed from Band-Aid advertising in recent decades, but the color of the lowest cost, standard Band-Aid remains the same. Johnson & Johnson Company, makers of Band-Aids, have made attempts to circumvent this flesh problem by creating brightly colored cartoon covered styles as well as clear bandages. However, despite attempts to offer a solution, the fact that these alternatives are more expensive continues to privilege white skin today.
Historically, photographic representation also privileged white skin. Photography was developed and refined to represent a white flesh tone standard. Dyre discusses the development of photographic media in relation to white skin:
Experiment with, for instance, the chemistry of photographic stock, aperture size, length of development and artificial light all proceeded on the assumption that what had to be got right was the look of the white face. This is where the big money lay, in the everyday practices of professional portraiture and amateur snapshots. By the time of film (some sixty years after the first photographs), technologies and practices were already well established. Film borrowed these, gradually and selectively, carrying forward the assumptions that had gone into them. (Dyre 1997: 90-91)
Color bars used today in television broadcasting to calibrate color include a bar that represents the value of a white flesh tone. In video production, cameras are “white balanced” to standardize color values. These processes were and are so saturated with white residue that, in effect, virtually all modes of visual representation through a camera passed and continue to pass through a white flesh filter inherent in their design.
Dyer, R. 1997. White. London ; New York, Routledge.
Gould, S. J. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man. New York, Norton.
Olsen, Steve. 2001. "The Genetic Archaeology of Race," The Atlantic Monthly Vol. 287 Issue 4: 69-80.
In 1958, the same year Prussian Blue was relabeled, another important crayon was added to the Crayola lineup: Indian Red. Forty-one years later its label was changed to Chestnut. In the video, Chestnut rants about the history of her label and the time it took to change:
Well we can thank Christopher Colorus for starting it all, discovering our lands thinking he was in India. And not until all those sports teams named after native crayons got media attention did they think, maybe, just maybe calling us Indian was based on a colonial imperialist mistake which led to the genocide of millions of crayons. But whatever, better late than never!
Crayola.com’s Color Census states that “children wrongly perceived the crayon color was intended to represent the skin color of Native Americans. The name originated from a reddish-brown pigment found near India commonly used in fine artist oil paint.” Here, the creators of the crayon deny a link to the skin color of Native Americans, and direct attention to the misperception of children. However, debate on whether or not Indian Red intentionally referenced the body, as did the Flesh crayon, isn’t as pertinent as are the issues of perception, the politically correct and the social power of labels.
Connecting the color red and the skin color of Native Americans wasn’t new. Children didn’t invent the connection but learned it through cartoons, parents, school books, toys, sports teams, paints, etc. The “white man” and the “red man” were old acquaintances in images of the Old West. Children even act out that relationship playing cowboys and Indians. In the eyes of children, the origin of the Indian pigment wasn’t important. They understood it to mean what it meant socially, regardless of its technical origin. The term “Indian” is rooted in the historical mislabeling of the Native American peoples. Still today, referring to a person as Indian can refer to people from two different continents. The fact that the term Indian is still used to describe the indigenous inhabitants of North America reemphasizes the lasting power of these labels. In 1855, Oliver Wendell Holmes, contented by the reduced Native American population said, “…and so the red-crayon sketch is rubbed out, and the canvas is ready for a picture of manhood a little more like God’s own image” (Gossett 1965: 243). Here, the crayon and the color red are direct references to both the indigenous Americans and the oppression of their people.
In an essay titled “Racism, Nationalism, and Nostalgia,” J. Gray Sweeney, Associate Professor of Art History at Arizona State University, recognizes the values expressed in cowboy art by painters Remington, Russell, and Schreyvogel as “implicitly endorsing the suppression of Native Americans who are condemned as ‘savages’ for resisting white expansion into the West, or patronized for their lack of ‘culture’” (2002: 156). Sweeney uses a recent painting, The Indian Agent’s Big Medicine (1990), featuring several natives driving by a village in an automobile, as an example “typical of the genre:”
It plays on the superiority of white technology over primitive Indians. Particularly objectionable in this fantasy is the appearance of nude Indian females running excitedly in clouds of dust raised by the automobile that carries the Indian Agent and the chiefs in their war bonnets. Such exploitative imagery, with its undisguised aspect of racism and sexism, is a doubly cruel irony when one considers the brutal suppression of the Indians, and their continuing marginalization in American society. (Sweeney 2002: 162)
These representations perpetuate a one hundred fifty year old stereotype of Native American culture frozen in time.
In the mid-1990s, professional US sports teams began drawing media attention regarding logos, mascots and team names that were offensive to Native Americans. Sports teams are businesses and changing a label can be expensive. Anything with a team label can sell for a high margin simply because it wears a particular label. Despite the media attention to the issue, the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins and many college and high school teams still use these stereotyped characters.
Gossett, L. Y. 1965. Violence in Recent Southern Fiction. Durham, N.C., Duke University Press.
Sweeney, J. Gray. 2002. “Racism, Nationalism, Nostalgia.” In Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History, edited by Kymberly N. Pinder, 155-168. New York, Routledge.
The Flesh crayon changed during a time of social change in the 1960’s; the Civil Rights Movement brought issues of skin color to the front page. Similarly, during a resurgence of media attention in the mid-1990’s to Native American issues, the crayon Indian Red was relabeled. These Crayola label changes underscore the power the media has to change the social meaning of labels. The cultural production power of visual media continues to shape the construction of race in commercial news, advertising, television sitcoms, music videos and Hollywood film. My interest in visual media’s ability to represent constructs of race led me to create another piece, Race Cube.