The Colour Narrative

How much of our daily interactions, reading, and living is affected by the narratives coded in our colours, ethnicities, and histories? How much of our reactions to seemingly insignificant things are spurred by the presence of unsaid things?

This article is brought to you by an incident I witnessed while on the morning train to work today:

A black gentleman, a professional from his dress and demeanor, was standing in the standing area of the train carriage when it came to a stop at Nanaimo station. He had a slim backpack slung over one shoulder and a newspaper he was absorbed in reading in one hand. A white lady, also a professional judging from her dress and behaviour, got on. She asked the man to move back and he obliged readily. This should have been the end of it but the lady, British from her crisp accent, told him, “You should take your backpack off.” The man looked at her in surprise saying that there was no one behind him and he didn’t think he was inconveniencing anyone by leaving it over his shoulder. She responded again, “It’s only good manners.”

Obviously the man didn’t take well to that and he said something to her that I couldn’t hear but her expression changed and her lips pursed.

Me, I was rather angry. Now whether this lady had intended to or not, by saying that what the man wasn’t doing was good manners, she implied that he was ill-mannered. And considering the history between the white British and the black Africans, this was in exceedingly bad taste of her.

But let me be truthful here, I do think you should take your backpacks off when in transit. And I do think that it is good manners to do so. And the man did take his backpack off when the train got crowded proving that he is not, as the woman implied, ill-mannered but is cognizant of need and has the ability to act to fulfill that need.

For the woman to appoint herself, quite unnecessarily, as Miss Manners shows a remarkable lack of awareness not just of social etiquette but also of the histories that form the fabric of social interaction among people of different cultures, colours, and social statuses.

We live in a modern society that often scoffs at things like social status and class division but we are only fooling ourselves if we think that history will be so easily denied. When the way we think, act, and behave is structured by the history of the people we come from, reinforcing the colour narrative is no longer a conscious act but an unconscious one.

There could have been many reasons this woman felt that she could speak the way she did to the man but in my opinion, the fact that she as a white woman felt comfortable telling a stranger what to do had to have, even if only a little, something to do with him being a black man. Would she have said the same thing to a white man? Of course not. A white woman? Perhaps. To another POC? Definitely.

Would the man have been offended if another POC had told him to take his backpack off? What if it was a WOC who told him to do that? Would he have been just as angry? I don’t think so but that is just my speculation.

The reason I am posting this at The Book Wars and not say at my personal blog is because I am certain the colour narrative is carried over whenever we read books. This may be an obvious fact now but I admit that many times I don’t actually stop to think why I might dislike something. I just simply focus on the something and how it offends me—especially where books are concerned.

My friends and I have often read the same book and had wildly different reactions. In fact, if you will check out one of our The Cover Wars features, you will notice how different our opinions are regarding different covers–particularly covers on which POC appear. While my friends may critique the cover for its composition and construction, I am usually just pathetically glad there is a POC gracing the cover of a book. It is a bonus if he/she/they are not veiled or in silhouette or with their heads and other body parts cut off.

I am obviously not stating that my burgeoning awareness that my likes and dislikes are not solely mine trivializes or falsifies in any way my objections with a certain piece of work, fiction or otherwise. I could also like something as much as I hate something else because of the colour narrative.

So, you ask? What is the point of this ramble into pseudo-political talk and colour-activism?

When have I ever had the answers?

I just ask that you be aware of the often implicit colour narrative and know that sometimes you act in ways because of it and sometimes in spite of it.