This picture of flesh colored crayons is George Takei’s Facebook meme a few days ago, and it’s a fitting one in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
My first thought in response to the image: “Because only Nixon could go to China.” There are lots of inferential leaps from crayons to Nixon and China, but it’s all about Star Trek’s ambiguous multiculturalism.
On the one hand, the message here can be read as a colorblind attitude toward racism and assimilation. On the other, it can be read as something rather radical, and in that regard, George Takei is an excellent spokesperson for the message.
Several questions, then. What is wrong with colorblindness, why is this not George Takei’s point, and what’s up with the Nixon-China reaction? Then, in deference to King, a return to the larger issue regarding the content of character.
(1) What is wrong with colorblindness? Sometimes people claim to be colorblind. They say, “I don’t see color.” Then, to reinforce the point, they add, “I don’t care if you are black, white, red, yellow, purple, green, or any other color.” It reduces the history and impact of institutional racism to the significance of Crayola crayons. It’s insulting. That is why the Crayola Crayon picture is important.
Colorblindness is not the antidote to racism. To ignore color or race is to ignore racism.
Many people cite “flesh”-colored Crayolas and Band-Aids as examples that illustrate white privilege. People of color do not find their skin tones represented in these products. More significantly, though, people of color are not represented because white people’s skin tones are perceived as neutral or normal. This perception and its implementation in the daily world around us – white as neutral or normative and non-white as other – indicates a power dynamic. The power dynamic itself is the point, not the actual skin color.
So, when Crayola released its box of multicultural flesh-toned crayons, it fell flat all the way around, because everyone over the age of four knows it’s about power, not crayons. Crayons are symbolic of that power.
(2) Why is colorblindness not the message of the Crayola meme? We can take Takei literally or ironically. Given the campy turn his rhetoric took when he came out politically, and how progressive his agenda is with regard to racism and homophobia, it’s hard to imagine the Crayola meme as anything but ironic. Irony can be serious and funny at the same time, y’all. Because the caption refers to flesh-colored crayons, it undermines all statements about color, including statements about colorblindness. His serious public messages have included remembering the history of Japanese internment and protesting against race-bending in Hollywood. This is not colorblind advocacy. Yes, the meme can be read literally, and all Crayons are equal, of course. But genuine equality means more than reducing character to a box of crayons
(3) Nixon and China? Weeelllll… There’s that scene in Star Trek VI where the Federation administrators ask Kirk to meet Klingon diplomats. Kirk notoriously despised and battled Klingons, much the way Nixon hated and hunted communists, so Spock pointed out that Kirk was the best emissary to the Klingons, just as “Nixon went to China.” It was a geeky Star Trek lapse into the best and worst impulses of the Star Trek multicultural mythos. Star Trek does promote a well-intentioned multiculturalism. Star Trek is not quite colorblind. It occasionally approaches conversations about fairness and institutionalized power differences. It rarely addresses privilege, so it falls back onto “get alongism.” There are exceptions, like the Klingon dinner party in Star Trek IV, which does a good job of interrogating “illegal alien”-ness, until Kirk effs it all up being..well….Kirk.
All of which has nothing to do with George Takei or MLK, except that it does.
(4) What of MLK? The need for the #BlackLivesMatter movement disproves that we live in a post-racial, colorblind society. The caption for the crayon meme comes from MLK’s Dream speech over fifty years ago. In that speech King urged people to shrug off “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” in favor of the “fierce urgency of now.” Fifty years ago. He said that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence gave all Americans a promissory note that guaranteed the country’s descendants its unalienable rights, but the check has been marked insufficient funds for people of color. Fifty years ago. That check is still bouncing.
The speech is worth reading. Not the resonant parts that have been used to sell cars and celebrate days off from school or work, but the substantive parts that talk about creative suffering, jail cells, brutality, and poverty since the hundred years after emancipation. And read the parts that mention the sweltering heat of revolt that will come back to haunt America if justice isn’t redressed. Now, fifty years later, skip the Dream sequence and read the substance of the speech in honor of Rev. King’s birthday, because that’s the point about justice and the content of our national character.