I had my head buried in a magazine so only half heard the conversation. When it finally permeated through the intellectual fug of doctors waiting room literature I must confess I was utterly bemused.
A woman – one of the doctor’s patients – was asking if the receptionist knew where she could buy skin-coloured plasters for her daughter. I had a bit of a chuckle, assuming that the lady must be pulling the receptionists leg; like the time my uncle sent my brother to the hardware to buy a tub of elbow grease and a left-handed hammer.
But the lady was being serious and it soon became clear that her daughter – obviously, a self-conscious teenager – had a post-operative wound on her face and she wanted a plaster that would help to keep her medical procedure discreet by blending in with her skin tone. Now up until over-hearing this conversation I had literally never thought about the colour of plasters. In fact, I had never thought much about plasters period. A plaster is a plaster, right? Surely they are all vaguely “skin coloured”? But this lady was darker-skinned and her daughter needed a darker-toned plaster to feel okay about her wound.
I must admit that I had questions about this incident: Was this a real need – skin-toned plasters? Was she just being precious? The more I thought about it and chatted to Cathy about it, the more I realised the issue was bigger than that. It was about choice and self-determination. Of course, a teenage girl would want to cover up an ugly wound and she might want the covering to be the same or similar colour to her skin. But more than that she would not want to be prescribed to one way or the other about what colour plaster she had to wear. To the millennial generation in particular, this is crucial.
Of course, such notions would be totally foreign to those of us – particularly us white folk – who grew up in the 1900’s. The colour of a plaster would simply never have been an issue as firstly we did what we were told (ho hum – “in my day….”) and secondly good old Band-Aids or Elastoplast were always near-as-damn-it to my skin tone so who cared?
But millennial “self-centredness” notwithstanding, is racism not – at the very guts of the thing – a lack of choice because of your skin colour? Go to this toilet not that one; get that education not this one; don’t use that beach or you will be insulted; apply for this job but not that one; wear that plaster etc. Surely, if racism is – as many people tell me – a thing of the past or at worst, confined to “isolated incidents”, then we should all be able to go into a shop and buy a skin-toned plaster (our skin tone – not a “pink person’s” skin tone.)? Or should we? Is this not taking things too far? Well, maybe it is. But how about this example: I know from having an adopted black child that it is virtually impossible to buy anything other than a white doll. This is odd as the vast majority of South African children are black.
Now how would I react if I had a white child and could only buy her black dolls? How would she feel about this? How would I feel about only having a brown or black plaster to put on my peachy white skin? Maybe you would be fine with that, but maybe I would not and therein lies the rub. People of colour have been extremely limited in terms of choice. Another example is condom usage: the norm in terms of free condoms (and indeed store bought ones) is that condoms are whiteish. I mean who would want to use something that made you like some fluorescent glow stick? It has – and remains – a challenge to get men to wear condoms so heck, let’s make it as easy as possible by making them widely available in every colour under the sun.
Social media and indeed the fashion industry have begun to take note of all this. A recent Sunday Times article entitled “Showing One’s True Colour” highlighted the fact that people of colour were beginning to get very vocal about “the lack of inclusion when it comes to their skin tone in beauty products.” This has led to the very popular social media hashtag #melanin emphasising the fact that dark-skinned people have 43 times more melanin per skin cell than lighter skinned people. This campaign is of course a millennial incarnation of Black Pride. The article points out that even companies like Apple and WhatsApp have taken heed by including racially diverse emoji’s. You will have noticed these if you are a WhatsApp user; various shades of smiley faces, different colour thumbs for the thumbs up emoji.
We are moving into a world of choice and colour. Bring it on.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
All my writing – regardless of topic – is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole. I do this to help keep their stories alive.