It seems like a strange concept, right? Objects like clothing, make up and shoes shouldn’t have anything to do with race, and yet, if there’s anything I’ve learnt in my English Literature degree it has to be that a shoe is never just a shoe.
Confused? Well lets go back a while.
I first started thinking about this when Noughts and Crosses came out. If you haven’t read it, it’s a book by Malorie Blackman about a black girl and a white man who fall in love. The difficulty about this in the book is that they live in a society in which white people are looked down upon as ‘lesser’ than black people. Essentially, it’s a role reversal of what race relations were previously like in our society to illustrate the issue of racism. I would definitely recommend the whole series of books, but there is one moment early on in the first book that I think about all the time.
At some point in the narrative, the white boy is somehow injured, and the black girl patches him up with a plaster. It’s a small gesture, but what Blackman really emphasises is the way that the brown plaster sticks out on the boy’s pale skin. At that point in my life it had never occurred to me that plasters weren’t made for black people- they are made to blend in with a white person’s skin.
The idea that some products were originally designed with white people in mind isn’t surprising to me at all, given the tragic history of racism that we all are aware of, but it does surprise me that we still see this now. Capitalism as a system doesn’t occur to me as something that discriminates by race. Sure, there are many racist capitalists, but it doesn’t serve a business to cut out parts of the market, if only for the sake of sales. I suppose if you get deep into it, it could be argued that without alternatives it’s easy to just force people of colour to buy products that don’t fit their needs, but as the market evolves even the tiniest amount, you would think the competition to suddenly provide for the whole market would suddenly become fierce, rather than allow the delayed progress that we are now seeing.
In years since, more and more innovation has occurred, especially in the beauty industry, to help evolve various products not to exclude people of colour. Whether it’s tights or foundation it seems that more people are able to find products that fit their skin colour where they previously couldn’t. More shades than ever before are available, and although I haven’t seen any brown ones, anyone with blue and unicorn print skin has all the plasters they can dream of! It’s true that these products still aren’t so mainstream and are therefore sometimes more expensive, but it’s important to see that there has been some progress.
That being said, progress is slow and last month an article came out about a company that had just started making ballet shoes for people of colour. Again, I had never noticed that ballet shoes were made to blend in with white skin. To be fair I had never danced at a professional level (at which point the colour of the shoes actually becomes important) and my ballet teacher would probably argue that what I was doing couldn’t be called dancing at all, but from a social stand point it should be important at any level. According to the article in The Independent, professional ballet dancers of colour would previously have to find a way to paint their ballet shoes, often with foundation or cheap paint in order to perform, increasing their work compared to white dancers.
The fact that this kind of thing is still the norm suggests that there is still very much a need to be aware of these kinds of issues and to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about everyday items. Of course, racism is widespread and manifests itself in much more dangerous ways than ballet shoes, but it is one way to make a difference.