Domain-relative labeling

Halloween advances upon us, and there are sales of all kinds. As always, sales in the gayverse, including men’s underwearworld, where Daily Jocks made an offer today:

A bright orange C-IN2 strap jock (with that criss-cross effect), on a black body. Or at least what we describe as a black body, though outside the domain of skin color, the (absurdly fit) model’s body would be described as dark chocolate brown.

Now, it’s true that the C-IN2 jock’s waistband has the company name in black, so all on its own the garment is (screaming) orange and black. But I also think it’s no accident that the company chose a very dark-skinned  black model for the ad, which is then a composition in black and orange, the Halloween colors. (The colors are widely assumed to represent death — All Hallow’s Day is, after all, the Day of the Dead — and life, in the flaming colors of autumn. The Dutch House of Nassau, which became the House of Orange (William and Mary, 1688!) in Great Britain, and ultimately at Princeton (“Going Back to Old Nassau”), has nothing to do with it, despite the orange and black.)

Note: underwear ads quite frequently crop the model’s head, presumably to force the viewers to focus on the model’s extraordinary body (which does a major part of the selling) and of course on the garment on offer. A face will get viewers’ attention first, thus distracting from business. (I yearn for the faces, because they give personality and character to the models, but for underwear hawkers they’re an unwelcome distraction.)

The point is that the model’s headlessness isn’t a black thing; CIN-2 is deeply into beheading models in ads. On the other hand, I spent some time this morning looking at large numbers of C-IN2 catalogue ads for jockstraps, and they all had white models — white like the target gay male customers, for whom black men are objects of lust, not objects of identification, ad identification is what would sell jocks. That’s commercially comprehensible, but icky.

But on to the real point here, about the labels we use to name colors. The basic color words in English (naming the colors that serve, to put it very briefly, for quick labeling of things) include both black and brown, and in those terms the C-IN2 model’s skin is indisputably brown, not black.

What’s crucial here is that when we’re in the domain of skin-color names, a different system of (“race”) categorization applies. In this system, people perceived to be of sub-Saharan African descent are all said to be black, whatever their actual skin tone, while (among others) Filipinos, Iraqis, North Indians, and Mexicans and other Latin Americans are said to be brown (unless they are perceived to be of sub-Saharan African descent, as many Brazilians and most Haitians are).

Yes, it’s all deeply screwy, but that’s the way of judgments of race and ethnicity. Charles Darwin got it right, rejecting all race classification in favor of seeing gradations along various dimensions.

But racial categorization (both folk and “scientific”) framed in terms of skin color has a history, going back in the West to ancient times. In some contexts, there are only two categories, black and white, and this scheme tends to serve as a backdrop for further refinements, in the form: whoever is not white is black.

These refinements take us into as many as five race categories named on the basis of skin color, many of them ostensibly scientific. From Wikipedia:

Linnaeus’ protégé, anthropology founder Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) divided humanity into five broad classes based primarily on skull shape (craniometry) – each approximately corresponding to a range of skin colors. He termed these five groups :the Caucasian or white race; the Mongolian or yellow race; the Malayan or brown race; the Ethiopian or black race; and the American or red race.

Note the convenient fact that these presumably scientific categories correspond to basic color terms in standard Western languages: in English, white, yellow, brown, black, red.

Though there are many books’ worth of things that can be said about such a taxonomy, the immediate point here is that color-word vocabulary is being deployed in a specialized way within a specialized domain, in this case the domain of racial classification. A domain in which brown in the basic color domain sometimes is black in the racial skin-color domain.

There are, of course, other specialized domains for color naming: hair color, for instance. A domain in which (as has often been noted) the English basic color word red is used for a hair color that would clearly fall within the basic color category (named in English) orange; within the hair-color domain, there’s no other widely accepted term for this color (compare the specialized hair-color terms blond(e) and brunet(te)), though there is BrE ginger (sometimes derogatory) and the carrot of carrot-top.

2 Responses to “Domain-relative labeling”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    “Red” hair is also sometimes called auburn. (There’s a joke about it in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.)

    I’ve never understood the use of “red” and “yellow” for Native Americans and East Asians respectively. For me, there’s simply no perceptible similarity between the names and the actual skin tones.

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