Describing Skin Color in American Sign Language

Talking about Race in any situation — even in a university setting where teachers and students should feel safe to be blunt and congenial — can pack a certain, uncomfortable, stigma when bringing up the matter.

Race is describing skin color.  Race isn’t a cultural meme — though some try to politicize it into being so.  Race is not necessarily a shading of pride or condemnation, though some try to make it so.

When you teach American Sign Language — a visual language — the importance of Race in describing people cannot be underestimated.  Race is a skin color identifier that is used to accurately help render the whole person in ASL.

Some students are uncomfortable when it comes to using Racial shading in describing themselves or others, and so the first step is to provide as many options as necessary — and many students are eager to help create new shades of definition and meaning and that process of discovery and definition should be encouraged.

Race, in ASL class, is not limited in a Census sense, but is defined by shade and tone accuracy.  “Caucasian” is not a great ASL identifier, and “White” isn’t much better — though the sign for “White” as a color is different from the sign for “White” skin — so when it comes to pale-skinned people, the choices for Racial identity are more limited compared to people of color.

Here’s a list of some of the skin descriptors our students have used in the past.  It is important to let the student self-identify their skin color because one person’s “Black” is another student’s “tan” — and it matters to them to be described as they prefer, and not as others wish.  Each person in the class must use the preferred identifier, and not their own perception of such, when describing other people.

You’re not only learning names and eye color and height, you’re learning their “skin color name” as well.

  • yellow
  • white
  • black
  • dark
  • dark-skinned
  • tan
  • red
  • olive
  • brown
  • light-skinned
  • light
  • light-brown

Some may be offended by “Yellow” and “Red” on the list, but in real classroom practice, students have used those identifiers.  One “Yellow” user was a Korean woman, who, when asked about her color choice by other students, said, “That’s the color of my skin.”  Yellow wasn’t a Racial insult to her, it was who she felt she was.

“Red” has been used by Native American students as well as some students from India — they told us they prefer that skin identification because that’s the color they were raised to accept and it isn’t an insult, or injury, to use the “Red” skin descriptor.

It’s fascinating to see how students choose their skin color.  “Dark” is absolutely different than “Dark-Skinned” in both attitude used and in employed signed indices.  Students who culturally identify as Black have no problem describing their skin color as “tan.”

It’s funny that “Pink” has never been used to describe skin color in any of our ASL classes.  One might think the temptation would be to use “Pink” for “White” skin as “tan” might be used to describe “Black” skin, but it doesn’t work that way.  Pink, it seems, is too odd a color — much like “Green” or “Purple” or “Blue” would be in accurate active American Sign Language usage — even though many, when choosing a crayon to color Caucasian skin on a page of paper, will instinctually pick up a pink Crayon out of a natural, if unbiased, but culturally conditioned, habit.

6 comments

  • It is important that the students are free to also ask questions about why others choose their skin color ID. You can learn a lot about people that way.

    • Right! Sometimes people are surprised by the answers they get. People are not just what they see. Sometimes there’s an invisible mix of fact directly at hand but exposed in pigment!

      • The most important thing is that the color must be visibly accurate. We’ve had students try to pick a cultural ID and not a skin color that can be used to describe them to someone who doesn’t know them. It doesn’t really work with a White student to claim they are “Black” skinned in the ASL sense, even if they may have black blood in their family or they politically ID as black.

        • Yes, that’s another good point. Skin color in ASL class is about pigment description, not about anything else. You’re describing skin color to someone else so you can pick that person out of crowd or know them when you meet them.

          • In some situations skin color could change day-to-day. If someone had a bad sunburn, you might use “red” to describe their burn or ruddy complexion.

  • Right, and as the seasons progresses, skin color descriptors can change, too, in the Summer from “White” to “Tan” to “Olive” to “Dark” depending on the changing skin pigment — and then the reverse of that when the Winter comes.

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