Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Inclusion in the "Nude"

I'm  gonna talk about this stuff in a moment:

But first, I need to do some babbling  about identity. 

I've  mentioned a few times on  this blog that I have indigenous American ancestry and self-identify, at least in part, as Native American. And, as such, I'm pretty quick to notice and point out negative or problematic portrayals of indigenous peoples or cultures, even in things I love (like Harry Potter). (If you click on some of the tags at the bottom of those posts to related topics, you'll find more, if it interests you.) What I perhaps should have clarified before, and wish to now, is that I have lived a life of privilege based on the fact that  I 100% pass as white.

For those unfamiliar with the term, passing is related to when a person that self-identifies or has characteristics relating them to a marginalized group is perceived as the  dominant  group. When I was in grad school, a lot of the literature I read from specialists on disability and identity talked about passing at least a little (and I have one book  devoted entirely to the topic; not to say that's the only one out there, but  rather, that passing as non-disabled is a Thing), and I think a lot of us do it all the time when it comes to our depression, anxiety, etc.- we don't want people to know we have depression. A famous example is how F.D.R.'s physical disabilities were kept out of the public eye as much as possible, and it really wasn't until after his death that the severity of them became generally known. Transgender and non-straight individuals do it all the time, in different ways, and for different reasons: We have some pretty fucked up misconceptions about how GLBT people "should"  act and look, and  if a person of that identity fits them, we assume they're straight/cis, etc. And it is, as for me, quite common for people of color to pass as white because their skin tone is light enough to be "convincing" or whatever. 

Passing is a complex state of being. I know I have had more opportunities than a lot of my cousins would have had if they were in the exact same situations as me growing up, and not  just because I already started off at an advantage, being born in California and moving to Las Vegas, then going to college, rather than being born on a Reservation in South Dakota like most of them. This isn't to say none of my cousins are educated or have had successes- a number of them did go to college, and two of them are teaching on the Reservation in South Dakota right now. But, even with the disadvantages I had because I was poor, had disabled siblings, lived in dangerous neighborhoods, etc., I still had the advantage of being ghostly pale (I don't tan- I burn and peel) and dirty blonde. Well, dirty blonde nowadays; when I was little, I was Sleeping Beauty Blonde:
I'm gonna say second or third grade-
that was the age when I always used a
RIDICULOUS amount of gel in my hair, be
it in a ponytail, or like above, behind a headband. Oh, youth...
But still, I grew up knowing my heritage, hearing stories from my mom, grandpa, great uncles and aunts, my mom's siblings. Not to mention having a last name  that makes it kind of obvious (even though what I know of my indigenous heritage comes from my mom's family, not my biological father's, and it's his name that "sounds" Native). But because I look so damn white, it usually takes me saying my last name with a kind of "duh" tone attached for people to catch on if I bring it up with them. 

And I'll admit... I don't do it a lot. Partially because my ethnicity shouldn't matter... but partly because I know there's a part of me wondering what will happen, if they'll see me differently, treat me differently.

When I was in fourth grade, I got in an argument with my teacher over the pronunciation of "sioux"- she was saying it was "sao" (like "sour" without the "r"), and I was pronouncing it... correctly. This was during a presentation I was giving on my own family history, so I refused to back down, so she told me to "sit down and shut up" and that she was "pissed off" that I would be so disrespectful. I can't remember if I was sent to the principal or not, but I know the news went home eventually. And holy shit. My mom was pissed as all Hell and and made sure the principal knew it. And in the end, the teacher barely spoke to me the rest of the year, presumably because she got in deep fucking shit for being so damned racist to her student; but after that, a few kids called me the R-word I have disparaged on this blog before. I never told my  mom (sorry if this is how you're finding out, Mom, if you're reading...), or anyone, for that matter... but the rest of the time I was at that school, the bullies called me  a redsk**, and it was only the fact that we moved a monthish into fifth grade, thus prompting a school change, that I got away from it. 

I know that experience influences why I don't always offer the information freely with new people. I usually wait a while, testing them, getting a feel for whether or not I can trust them enough with it before bringing it up with them. As if it's a terrible secret I have to keep hidden, lest I be persecuted. It's kind of irrational in most contexts, I get it, but trauma does some fucked up shit to your brain, yo. 

So even though I look white, seem white, and everyone thinks I'm white, I don't necessarily feel white, and here's where shit starts to get wonky. Or, well, wonkier. 

I work at a store that sells intimates for plus-sized women. And one aspect that I am super, duper proud of our company for is that our models are always very diverse- more than one of the regulars  are women of color, and there are even some that show visible signs of aging!!! 

Shocking, I know. 

Another thing I've noticed is that, while it can't control the names of things from other companies it's contracted with, such as Spanx, which uses color names like "nude" and "soft nude" for lighter shades that light-skinned women would want for underneath thinner, lighter-colored clothing, and "taupetone" for the shade darker colored women would prefer for the same purpose, the company I work for calls lighter shades "cafe mocha" or straight-up "beige" for the former, and has equally non-ethnically-charged names for darker shades, like "French almond" (and I remember a bra that's now discontinued that was in "chocolate brown") (and by the way, the "French" in that isn't, as far as I can guess, just a way to make it sound fancier than "almond," an isn't meant to imply a white French person, especially since the models wearing that color on the website are women of color).

And I love that. Because I do so very strongly believe that words matter. I do my best to be inclusive for everyone, regardless of their myriad intersectional identifiers. And I know exactly where the idea to call a pair of beige panties "nude" came from: A white person. Because yeah, the message they wanted to get across was, "This won't show through your white pants/skirt/dress/etc.!" But who was it aimed at? Certainly not this woman: 

This is Precious Lee, the first plus-sized model of
color to be in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition
Nor anyone else with skin that's her color, or close to it, let alone any darker. This is the link for a Google Image search for "nude bra." Look at how few women of color there are. So whose "nude" is it?

Now here's the thing. "Nude" panties and bras could totally work for women like me that are passing as white;  those are the colors I do, indeed, go for when I'm wearing a light colored shirt or dress. And yes, I tell all of my  light-skinned customers to get a bra in the color they keep calling "nude," that's really "cafe mocha," because it's better for underneath thinner and lighter-colored tops than white (joking about how they actually "aren't that pale!"). And no, white women aren't white, but that's the point- that's why what's basically beige or a super light brown is called "nude." "Nude" implies "skin colored," and it's the skin color of... not-women-of-color, excluding us "passers." 

So I hate the whole "nude" thing. It excludes women with darker skin tones, implying the only skin tone that matters is lighter. And this kind of systemic racism is the subtle, difficult kind that people often reinforce without realizing they're doing it. Because God knows how long ago, someone decided to call it  "nude," everyone does, nowadays, not even thinking about exactly who that item would really be "nude" for in the first place. It's the "normal" thing to call those shades, and is so entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist that even women of color call my store's cafe mocha stuff "nude." 

But it's systemic racism. Period. If the tables had been reversed, and the fashion industry wasn't entrenched in racist practices and tendencies, either "nude" would never have been a thing, or it would be the "nude" for this gal

Angela Bassett
as opposed to this one

Meryl Streep

But that's now how things are. Women of color are surrounded by products named after white women, and, at least the customers I have seen, often internalize this so deeply that they get confused when something "nude" isn't called that. That's racism at its worst. 

This feeds into the idea that lighter skinned women of color are more beautiful that runs rampant in society. It's imperialist and orientalist, for women with darker  skin are thus  more "exotic" and "tribal," and darker colored women (and men) are more susceptible to things like harsher sentencing and incarceration, are less likely to get a job, are likely to get less pay, than their lighter-skinned brethren (let alone white people). There are tons of studies supporting this, but here's a good piece that talks about a lot of the different ways lighter skinned persons of color are treated less harshly.  

And this discourse, this deplorable idea that "lighter is better" is perpetuated in communities of color, too. Dark Is Beautiful is a campaign that has gained international attention, as its message is one combating the discrimination dark skinned Indian women experience. Indian cinema and advertising has historically excluded women of darker skin tones, or featured them in exploitative or problematic ways. And there are even Indian products designed to convince the women  using them it will actually lighten the pigment of their skin. I love this take on the issue:

I hate the idea that white/light is beautiful, is the baseline. Because it isn't. This whole business of lighter is better encourages passers like me to keep quiet, thus reinforcing the whole bloody mess in the first place. Like we shouldn't be proud of our identity. Of course, identity is super complex and I in no way am saying all passers are lying assholes. But I am saying that it's fucked up how the system is so skewed, white skin is the baseline, and light skin is actually safer to have than dark. 

So when I'm at work, I try to subtly correct my customers that look for "nude"  panties and bras. If they are pointing and say, "I need that nude bra," I'll point at the same one and say, "This? The cafe mocha one?" or if they  have to order something in that color, I'll say, "So that color is actually called cafe mocha, so let me  order that in a size 42DD for ya!" and do other, similar thing to remove "nude" from the conversation, given the context. Sometimes they seem to get annoyed, as if they think I'm talking down to them, and sometimes they refuse to stop saying "nude." When they  dig their heels in like that, I dig in my own (with a smile!), and find excuses to work "cafe mocha" into what I'm saying with them as many times as I can, to kind of drive the term home. I think most of my customers don't get what I'm doing or why, because, again, it's so "normal" to think of "beige" as "nude," it seems weird a store would use something other than "nude" for the color of the bra or panty  they obviously want for under light materials. I think a lot of the reason some think I'm being condescending, as if they're supposed to just know it's not cafe mocha because that's what my company does, not because "nude" is racist, because of how I pass as white. 

But sometimes necessity leads to me being a gentle educator. I have had a few times where a customer asked why it's not "just called nude" before, and when I give a very elementary lesson on racism to them, they actually tend to be pretty cool about it. My passing as white usually results in a response of... I dunno, awe, I guess, as if I'm some amazingly enlightened person because I care about subtle racism like that, when I'm talking to these particular gals. My favorite instance was particularly touching, though, so I'm going to retell the whole thing for you here.

I had been working pretty closely with an older white woman on bras for a good forty minutes. She wanted to get a ton (they were on sale, and she hadn't had a right-fitting bra since "well before [I was] born, sweetie"), so when I did my subtle correction of her when she said "nude,"  she asked, "Oh, now that's interesting. Why isn't it called 'nude?'"

"Well," I said, smiling a little, "probably because there are a lot of women that have skin colors that would totally contrast with that one in a light t-shirt because their skin is darker. And [insert company name here] cares about inclusion, so instead of naming a color after Caucasian people, they named it after something most people like, coffee!"  I laughed for a second, until I saw her face. She looked  worried and lost in thought. So I said  her name and asked, "Are you okay?"

"Oh," she said, "yes. I'm alright. I just... I had never thought of it that way. I just thought of it as 'nude' because it's close to my own skin color and, you know, that's my normal thing, and-"

"-and that's what it's always called, right?" I said, gently.

"Yes," she said, and she looked genuinely sad and sorry.

"Yeah," I said, nodding, "that's exactly the point. Kind of like how mainstream history textbooks are really more like white history."

"And why we need a Black history  month." She was nodding gravely, now.

"Yeah, so I just try to always use 'cafe mocha' or 'beige' when I can so that I don't exclude women of color from the conversation."

She nodded more rigorously. "Yes, I can see why. That makes sense." She paused, took a deep breath, slammed her hand on the counter, and said, grinning, "Well, Gabrielle, you better get me two of those cafe mocha bras, because Lord knows my girls need the support, and I don't wear a lot of black tshirts."

When this customer (finally) left the registers, a tall Black woman that had been standing nearby came up to me and bent down to whisper at me, "Thank you."

Admittedly, she surprised me, so I kind of jumped and squealed,  and once the you-startled-me and sorry-for-startling-yous had been exchanged, she went on, "I had always thought, 'Nude for who? White people?' before, but I don't know why I didn't notice that [insert company name here] doesn't call it that."

I nodded and said, "Yeah, I genuinely believe they're trying for inclusion  and diversity. I mean, look at all of the posters and marketing we have all over the store with women of color. And given the message of inclusion we have when it comes to body shape and type, I just find  it hard to believe that the whole 'cafe mocha' thing was on accident or whatever, y'know?"

She smiled and said, "Yeah, I think you're right. And you're doing a good job reinforcing that counter-message, honey."

"I do what I can, when I can." 

We went on to talk about how I pass as white, so I care a lot about it because "nude" wouldn't be actually nude for a lot of my family members, and she ended up tearing up. Which caused me to tear up, so we hugged and she said she wished she lived in town so she could shop with me more (she was here on business), but that she'd tell all her friends in the area to go to my store and look for me, and that all of her friends that don't shop at our store should because we have such great people like me working there. 

So that says to me it does matter. It matters for the women whose skin isn't the "nude" the fashion industry says it "should" be. And that is  the baseline I operate off of, myself. I don't give a shit if it gets on the nerves of white women when I say "cafe mocha" over and over again. 

I did get kind of snippy with a fellow employee over the phone  once over it. She had called our store to have us look for a bra for a customer that was at theirs, and I was the one taking the call, so I did the exact same  thing over the phone I do to customers- she kept saying "nuce," and I kept saying "cafe mocha" over and over. When she said, "Okay...?" with an attitude, I said, "Well, it's called 'cafe mocha' because not everyone is white,  and to include women of color. And I'm a woman of color, so having someone insist it's 'nude' like you're doing, especially when it isn't called 'nude' by  the company, is, well, kind of offensive. And you work for [insert  company name here], you should know your company's message of inclusion isn't just about size."

She hung  up. 

People  like that don't care. And aren't going to help. But people like my customer with the bras I talked about earlier, they're the best kind. They are open to the conversation about inclusion, and they want to help. So I am happy to educate them. Fuck the closed-minded assholes that don't get it- they don't want to get it. I don't mind making them uncomfortable, given their position of usual comfort is exactly what caused the issue in the first place- that their identity is presented writ large as "good" and "better" and "right" and all that nonsense. No. I'm much more inclined to make  the women whose identities are made to be "bad" or "dangerous," that get exploited, feel safe. It's the women that usually feel marginalized, like the woman that thanked me, that matter.