Caste vs colorism

Today, we have a particularly juicy guest post by Hue reader Sonu. After my post on skin color and society, she responded with this impassioned comment:
“I get a bit annoyed when Americans look at the issue of color and caste in India from a US perspective. It's a 5000 year old culture, one with very different reasons for why things are the way they are. Colorism isn't the way it is there for the same reason race relations are in this country. Caste isn't the same as color. Caste isn't the same as class. They can overlap, but they don't always. It's headache-inducing complicated.”
I was intrigued by her unique perspective, as I fall under the category of having a very limited American perspective and invited her to expand upon her comment with an article on caste and colorism.

First, a little about our guest blogger, in her own words:

Sonu, better known as slowburn online, is a South Asian emigre who has lived in the US for twenty years. Married to a decidedly American man with blue collar roots, mother of two, writer for hire, rapidly approaching 40. In India she'd be a radical lefty. Here, living near the nation's capital, she's a socially-progressive and fiscally conservative cynical codger.

Thank you for sharing your insight, Sonu!

Caste Versus Colorism
By Sonu

“So caste is like race?” I can't tell you how many times I've gotten this question. Short answer no, caste and race are not the same. So here's a thumbnail stab at it, from my point of view.

Race is a fairly recent social construct that has reduced and sometimes oppressed entire groups of people based on how they looked, regardless of their internal differences. Caste is age old, based on occupation, and has been enforced by endogamy, if not flat out discrimination or tyranny.

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On the upside, everyone has a place in a caste-based society- a community, a guild, a way of life, a network of employment.

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The downside is grimly clear. Traditionally, you did what you were born into, whether you liked it or not. And the grossly unfair cosmic joke is on you if you are born to a losing lottery. Because you may well be at the bottom of the social barrel - poor, dispossessed, demeaned, and limited to society's crumbs – for generations.

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This is what violent revolutions are made of. But unlike race, you can't necessarily tell someone's caste by how they look.

And then comes colorism, the preference for fair skin. It can be hard to see difference between colorism and race. But although colorism is a heavy thread in the Indian social fabric, it didn't negate or automatically disenfranchise those who are dark. Nor does it automatically correlate to caste.

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Here's the thing about colorism: dark doesn't automatically mean ugly in India – Krishna, the beloved playboy of the Hindu pantheon, whose name in fact translates to “dark,” is dark as thunderclouds, dark as midnight. He's the original tall, dark, and handsome. In fact, he's so dark he's blue.

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Case in point, my father, a Brahmin. (This pic is not actually my father, he's U.R. Ananthamurthy – a famous writer. Basically, Brahmins don't “look” like anything special.)

Dad is at the tippy top of India's caste system but he's dark enough that my American-born son (who doesn't get to see my folks all that often) once saw an older African American gentleman at the supermarket and asked what grandpa was doing back in the states. But in nearly 70 years, my father has never once had employment, residence, raises, or club memberships withheld because of how he looks. That said, he's male - men generally get to care less about how they look. Not so true for women.

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In the here and now, we Indians want largely to be fair. Matrimonial ads will specify that the groom or bride seeking a match is “wheatish.” Which basically means, “s/he isn't fair but not dark either.” And dark is definitely a drawback for a girl's matrimonial prospects. Blondes have more fun, thinner is better, lighter skin is prettier. But Indians don't want to be white; we have enormous pride in our culture.

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But it's a plus to be lighter skinned in the absence of gorgeousness, a la Padma Lakshmi.

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Or Aishwarya Rai, the most beautiful woman in the world, who is stunning, in no small part because she's fair skinned and light eyed.

It makes her exotic to Indians and I've often wondered if the country would have gone so totally nuts for her if she looked more like me, several shades darker and with everyday brown eyes. It's a question for the ages, like Cleopatra's nose.

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And if you're not thoroughly confused yet, enter class. Which is a whole other thing. The Ambanis of Reliance Industries and Lakshmi Mittal of ArcelorMittal – some of the wealthiest people on the planet. Both are banias – traders, merchants. Not upper caste, but more upper class than most of us will ever be. At just about any time in history. No joke.

Colorism, caste and class – they intersect, but they are not one and the same. Nor does any one factor automatically determine the other two. Class is a function of money, which has nothing to do with caste. And even then, as the new rich can attest to in any society, money doesn't mean you automatically have class. My family isn't wealthy, and yet no one in India would consider us remotely middle-class even though that's where our finances squarely place us. We're more like impoverished upper class aristocrats, where everyone works for a living.

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Famous case of marrying out. Indira Nehru, a very high caste brahmin, marrying Feroze Gandhi, who wasn't a Hindu, or even, for that matter, a particularly wealthy Parsi. My friend married an India, but she also married out. And a big plus point in her favor to smooth things over was, you guessed it, her fairness.

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Go to any Indian store in the US and look behind the counter. Yep. That's definitely a Fair and Lovely  skin lightening cream back there. I think of them as the Twinkies of the Indian store. Should the nuclear winter ever be upon us, I guarantee there will be a Fair And Lovely at your corner Indian store, covered in a thick layer of dust, probably just as chemically potent as the day the product rolled off the line.

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In an odd development, in the new India, the one on the upswing with the emerging economy and infinite possibilities for the first time since the decline of the Mughal Empire, there is a strange new gender parity. My father never had to worry about how he looked. He was male in a patriarchal male-dominated society. If he was a good provider, so much the better. But in today's India, as Rachel discovered in the Fair and Handsome commercial, men have to care about looks too. Frankly, I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

What are your thoughts? Reactions? Does anyone experience something like this in your part of the world?

Color in architecture? Who knew!

I first saw this building in an architecture magazine, and thought it was super cool. Imagine, color totally integrated into the design of a major high rise complex!
The complex is called the Linked Hybrid and was designed by architect Steven Hall. Located in Beijing, China, it took from 2003-2009 to complete.
So what do you get for all that? How about: 644 apartments, public green space, commercial zones, hotel, cinema, kindergarten, Montessori school, and underground parking.
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It's been dubbed, an "open city within a city". (source
The idea of the street (covered bridged) high above the city is intended to counteract the sense of isolation that high-rise living usually brings, and to create an incentive for residents to walk around the complex. (New Yorker)

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So, what about the color, you ask?

Holl introduced color on window soffits. For Linked Hybrid, he applied saturated hues to powder-coated aluminum panels on the header and two jambs of each window. Holl says he took the colors from polychromatic Buddhist temples, then used the I-Ching to determine the pattern.(source)
(btw great article on religious symbolism of Buddhist colors here)
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He applied a similar concept Simmons Hall at MIT. In the deep setting of the numerous windows, color is applied to the head and jamb, creating identity for each of the ten 'houses' within the overall building.

What do you think? Does the color make these structures feel more approachable or did they miss the mark?

Color experts chat

Recently, my color colleague Lori Sawaya (aka funcolors on design discussion forums) started a new blog called Color Budz featuring podcasts with other color experts.

Kelly Berg and I join Lori to discuss a range of topics about color and design. She'll also be inviting other color designers to join us now and then.
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Podcasting is a totally new medium for me, as I'd only done one interview before. Though we all know one another and have chatted at length individually, getting the pace and transitions right in a free-form conversation can be tricky. So our first talk is a whopping 45 minutes. Chock full of fun tid bits and banter between colleagues, we had a blast, but are learning to do smaller, bite-sized chats.

Our second podcast, we invited Annie Elliott to join us. There's just so much to discuss, and everyone has something unique to contribute. These are fun!

First podcast: Listen here
Second podcast: Listen here

Thriving artist

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Some inspiration for you today.

Why must artistic types starve? I love this quote and painting by blogger Marisa Haedike of Creative Thursday

Keeping up with life- guest blogging opportunity

My week of vacation in Kauai has really thrown my schedule off, and I have not had a chance to respond to any of your wonderful comments. They are still very much appreciated, and I read every single one of them. I will hopefully get back on track soon!

Speaking of getting busy... I'd like to start accepting submissions for guest bloggers during the first month or two after the baby is born (early June). I fully intend to continue working and blogging, etc but I figured I might have my hands quite full, and it would be nice to sprinkle in some guest posts to keep you all happy and entertained.
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SO, all you budding bloggers who have yet to commit to your own site, or maybe just have a great idea for an article on color and would like some extra exposure....Please consider contributing a post to Hue!
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Working backwards, the posts will be published in June and July (maybe August too, if there's enough interest). I'd like to have late April- mid May to edit and format the posts, so I'd need them by then. If you'd like to write an article, please email me a little bit about yourself, your idea, and any links to posts or articles you've written (so I can get an idea of your voice/interests)

As long as it ties into color, the sky is the limit! So what do you say, ready to have your voice heard across the blogosphere? I can't wait to hear from you.

Mermaid grottos and other rainy day activities

I was asked to take lots of colorful pictures while visiting my friend in Kauai this past week. But alas, it rained practically every day I was there- not the best conditions for glorious shots.
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Never fear, we concocted art projects to keep us busy.  I had schlepped paint and brushes, thinking we would do another mural. But with wood panelled walls through her house, there really wasn't any wall space unless we hung canvas. For those of you who have spent any time on a small island, you'll understand that hunting down such oddities as rolls of primed canvas can be a challenge. So, we opted to work with other materials.

Our challenge was to turn my friend's little girls' room into an underwater mermaid grotto.
 With all that wood, this would be tricky.

We started with the windows, which until I arrived, had been covered with baby blankets (tisk, tisk, tisk).

We headed for an amazing batik and quilting fabric store on the island- totally drool worthy. (more pics from flickr) I felt like a contestant in Project Runway, as we only had half an hour to select fabric and notions before we had to pick up kiddos from school. On your mark, get set, shop!
Ah, glorious blues. These photos just don't do the colors justice. I took a few stealth shots, but they didn't come out very well.
Batik fabric, in every color of the rainbow. Lots of Japanese prints, too. Quilters, eat your heart out!
Kaycee had to drag me out, as I was prepared to gobble up everything in sight.

In one morning, we managed to sew five tab top curtain panels, all in shades of blue and turquoise. Then spent the remainder of the day trying to hunt down 5 matching curtain rods. In Kauai: amazing batik fabric- no problem. A decent selection/stock of hardware? Forget it.

We found this fabulous fizzy yarn, used for crocheting and knitting, that we thought looked vaguely seaweed-like. We used the yarn to hang some beaded ocean animals we purchased at a local shop.

Stick a bulb underneath mamma turtle and viola, instant night light!

Some quick fix projects included this Ikea lamp makeover. Warp with fabric, add fizzy yarn, and you have instant sea creature.
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I really wanted to hang some blue icicle lights, but those had to be ordered online.  We did hang some blue rope lights around the turret (yeah, they have turrets!).

Of course, I couldn't leave without painting something. So we gave a chest of drawers and set of bookshelves a new lease on life with a mottled variety of blues and greens.

Here they are, in progress. With the addition of aqua glass knobs on the dresser, the look will be complete.

We ran out of time before we could select fabric for duvet covers and the bench cushions, as well  as pick out some new rugs to complete the space.

So, what would you do to make this room more ocean-like? My friend's girls are 4 and 6, but she wants to make the room something they can grown with, so we didn't want anything too themey or young.

Kaycee, will you send some pics when you finish? We all want to see the transformation!

"Tweaking" color

After receiving some excellent feedback from you all on my friend's fireplace make-over, I felt compelled to play around with some of your suggestions in photoshop.

I always like to think about how every challenge has multiple solutions, and try out several before-hand, when possible. Honestly, I think we've got so many materials and tones going here, it's a challenge to unify them all. Sometimes, it takes a few tries before you hit on the right fix. This is no exception. As Annie from bossy color would say, that first solution just wasn't "bossy" enough! This is a great example of try, try again.
 So, as it stands, the fireplace looks like this. Certainly better than before, but not -quite- there yet.

1st solution: Here, we have "painted" out the top arch to match the cream walls. This removes more of that top-heaviness.

2nd solution: Taking the above treatment one step further, here is the fireplace, completely painted out to match the cream colored walls

 3rd solution: alternatively, the walls could be darkened to match the lighter, custom-mixed mantel top
color. But this is delving into additionally-painted walls, something my friends wanted to avoid.

But what the heck, while we're delving into more daring solutions...I stumbled upon this treatment quite by accident, but thought it was worth including just to see what the room would look like if a darker brown were brought in to match the bookshelves. Feels more "den-like" this way.

4th solution: Here, we have painted out the top arch then darkened the mantel to a deep brown. With or without the darker seating area, still feels a bit too heavy to me. Friends, I say, rip it out like reader Washington Cube suggested!

Bringing in a bigger piece of art to replace the clock will also help- perhaps another lovely quilt with blues and some browns to tie everything together?

So, what do you think, now that you've had a chance to see your brainstorming suggestions put to the test? Let's discuss!

Back from paradise

Hello all!
Just a quick note to let you know I've returned. Alas, not too many pictures to share, as it rained and rained and rained while I was in Kauai. Beautiful, but not the best weather to go adventuring.

So in the meanwhile, here is a fun article on a museum color make-over to tide you over 'til next week.
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Frick Collection Color Make-over

'Make it work' fireplace

Remember that childhood Sesame Street song, "Which one of these things is not like the other?" Classic case in point right here.

While visiting my friends in San Diego, they expressed frustration over the look of their fireplace in the family room. Immediately noticing how out of place the fireplace mantel felt, we set off to 'make it work', as Tim Gunn from Project Runway likes to say.
Do you see what is wrong with the fireplace color? Some of you might see it right off the bat. For others, it might not be as evident. So much of that has to do with training your eyes to see see the nuances of a color's undertone.
In taking a closer look, we have the following:
• Mustardy- yellow undertones in the plaster fireplace mantel
• Warm pinky undertones in the stone fireplace surround
• Orangy undertones in the built-in cabinetry
• Peachy undertones in the wall color (subtle, but still there)
• Red undertones in the cherry hardwood floors

Phew! That's a whole lotta variety going on for such a "brown" space. And that's not even taking into consideration the purply brown leather sofa. But we won't complicate matters here.

Did you reach the same conclusion I did? The odd man out was the mustardy color.
The solution was to locate a warm, mid-tone brown with the same undertone as the built-ins that also complimented the stone surround. My friends didn't want to go too dark, and the lighter tones were too pale and insipid. BM's Fort Sumner Tan 1119 did the trick.

By including this color along the front panel of the low stone "bench", the mantel was not as out of place and felt more integrated into the design of the space. It also helped ground the seating area and tie in the cabinets to the left and right. Before, everything seemed to be floating.

Hours after painting, we were reclining on the sofa while watching the Olympics, analyzing our paint job. The tan worked much more successfully than the original mustard, but the mantel felt top-heavy and a wee bit overbearing. 8:30 at night, we dragged out the ladder, paint brushes and cans for a small color "tweak". (don't tell my obgyn I was perched on a ladder!)
 I took a little bit of the existing wall color and mixed it into our tan paint for a subtle tint. By applying this lighter value to the arch above the mantel, the heaviness was lifted, and balance was restored. Ahh, much better.

 Directly across from the fireplace wall hangs a huge, beautiful blue quilt of my girlfriend's very own creation, and various quilted blue and green throw pillows. (I am personally the proud owner of an original baby quilt)

Because there is very little color other than a variety of brown and beige on this side of the room, at a later time, they might take things one step further by incorporating a pop of blue in the inside of the arch. The quilt would then be tied into the palette of the room, and the addition of blue would help add some balance to the otherwise very warm color scheme. (Blue seating cushions would be nice, too)

What do you think? How would you have solved this design dilemma?