IDEAS | ZACHARY DAVIS
What does it mean when Americans conflate “whiteness” with “normal”? This happens all the time — just ask Joshua Bennett, a scholar and poet at Harvard University. “When I teach workshops for children,” he says, “I usually start by asking them to share their personal narrative. And so we’ll go around the room and often my white students will say, ‘Well, I don’t have a story. I’m normal. I’m nothing.’ I’m like, how could you be nothing?” When whiteness is the default, that makes everyone else a deviation from that universal standard.
That assumption has consequences, and not just in our politics.
After decades of black and white photography, the use of color film became widespread in the 1950s. To help achieve the most natural-looking skin color in printed photos, Kodak provided developing labs with special cards showing white women usually wearing colorful and high-contrasting dresses. These cards helped developers calibrate prints in a process that came to be called “white balancing.”
As scholar Lorna Roth argued in the Canadian Journal of Communication, “The light skin tones of these women — named ‘Shirley’ by male industry users after the name of the first color card model — have been the recognized skin ideal standard for most North American analog photo labs since the early part of the 20th century, and they continue to function as the dominant norm.”
Never mind that the details of people with dark skin, except for their white eyes and teeth, were erased. It wasn’t until Kodak was forced (by corporate clients like chocolate companies) to better rationalize color film for darker shades that black and brown people began showing up more naturally in standard film stock.
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