white on White

April 10, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Black is not a color,” says Philip Cohen in a blog post  explaining why he has decided to use upper case when writing about Black and White as racial categories. I agree. The title of that post is a tad coy. A more straightforward title might be, “black is a color, Black is a race.”  (I think the style manual still says to use italics when you refer to a word as a word.) 

It’s a small change, upper case for lower case, but it might move us one step away from the frequent conflating of the racial and the chromatic.

My favorite example of this color/race tangle happened here at Montclair.  A few years ago, the University became home to the work of artist George Segal, famous for his life-size, white-patina-on-bronze sculptures.  Montclair has, as our Web page boasts, “the only George Segal art gallery in the world.”  It’s housed in the most important building on campus, the parking garage.  Close by is this 1992 Segal sculpture “Street Crossing,” which came to the University in 2006 when the gallery opened.  (It has had two or three different placements.)

The Public Art Fund describes it this way:
Caught in an ambiguous psychological terrain, the seven figures seem blind to one another and to their surroundings. Segal had a particular ability to elevate mundane day-to-day activities into a lyrical or elegiac display, depicting his subjects with their guard down and in a naturalistic stance.
Maybe so.  But shortly after the sculpture was installed, a non-faculty employee here wrote to the president of the university from a different critical perspective.  The letter said, in effect, “This university prides itself on its efforts for diversity.  And then the biggest deal on campus is this sculpture of nothing but white people.”

The president wrote back explaining that the sculpture was a work of art blah, blah, blah.  And perhaps the employee was mollified.

But the problem here is not Art appreciation; the problem is not even race and diversity.  The problem is language. We need two words where we have only one.  Here’s another photo of the Segal piece.

After I heard the president tell this story, I asked our undergraduate assistant Heather to let me photograph her standing next to one of the figures in the sculpture.  Heather is, undoubtedly, a white girl.  She has very fair skin. Compared with her, I look positively swarthy. (Heather is also very good looking, and this photo, taken in strong sunlight – terrible light for photography – and unretouched, does her a real disservice.) Her skin is not the color of the Segal figure.

Still, we seem to be stuck with the same word, white, for both Heather and for the figures in the sculpture. But they are obviously not the same. No White person, even the palest and fairest, is that shade of white. If the word for White as a race were different from the word for white as a color, the offended employee might never have found cause to complain.  She would not have seen the sculpture as a bunch of “White people.”  

Do we have such a word?  Caucasian might do – you couldn’t say that the Segal figures were Caucasian – but the term is too long, and it implies a geographical link to the Caucasus that most White people don’t share. Besides, it’s part of a typology which has gone out of fashion in this country.

So at least for now, the only way I have to make the color/race distinction is with the shift key.

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