Sunday, March 14, 1999

Just color us politically correct red

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        My friend Larry is irritated. He has been reading the newspaper again, always a perilous exercise for him.

        “Crayola is changing the name of indian red crayons,” he writes, “because teachers complained that their students thought it had to do with American Indians. They are apparently prohibited from teaching their students the difference between American Indians and Indian Indians.”

Historic ignorance
        According to the Crayola people, indian red, always lowercase “i”, was never supposed to represent the color of anyone's skin in India or America. “The name originated from a pigment, used by fine artists in oil paints, commonly found near India,” the company said in a prepared statement. “But the fact that some people are confused is reason enough for us to rename the crayon.”

        Never mind that this is not exactly a color that a kid might never see again. Or that a child who might move from crayons to watercolors or oil paints will have to confront his ignorance sooner or later.

        C.F. Payne, the internationally known artist who has just finished the mural at the Cincinnati Playhouse, obligingly pawed through his supply of oils and watercolors. He reports that colors used by artists all over the world include not only indian red but prussian blue, which was discontinued by Crayola in 1958. This crayon was renamed midnight blue because, the company explains, “students are no longer familiar with Prussian history.”

        Well, if it is a history lesson they need, radio loons Bob and Tom on WOFX-FM suggest Chernobyl green or Monica blue.

        Binney & Smith, the company that makes Crayolas, actually is loaded with history. The firm began by selling the red oxide pigments that colored America's barns. Then in 1885, the company's carbon pigments were added to Goodrich's line of white tires. The new black tires were more durable and didn't show the dirt.

Sniffing a sale
        By 1903, the company was making slate pencils and chalk, and their sales people — hanging around schools — smelled a new market. Quicker than you can say cerulean, they started selling the first box of crayons, which cost a nickel and included black, brown, blue, red, purple, orange, yellow and green.

        By 1949, the artists at Binney & Smith were really cooking. They'd come up with 48 colors, including bittersweet, burnt sienna and periwinkle. Later on, the pedestrian navy blue and straightforward brown were packaged with the more fanciful neon carrot and mauvelous. The old standbys burnt sienna and sky blue lined up with screamin' green, unmellow yellow and fuzzy wuzzy brown.

        Crayola now offers 96 colors, but radical red, if I may say so, is nearly indistinguishable from wild watermelon. And burnt sienna looks exactly like mahogany.

        But at least nobody is offended. And nobody was fired, as was the case in Washington, D.C., when the word “niggardly” was assumed to be a racial epithet.

        Stacy Gabrielle, the Crayola spokeswoman who is so young that her favorite color is shocking pink, said, “We live in a diverse society. We respect that.”

        And it is, after all, just the name of a misunderstood crayon. It's not a monument or a college tradition. So, if it confuses anybody or, worse, hurts somebody's feelings, why not change it? Maybe the teacher's time is better spent teaching kids how to read than teaching them the origin of pigments of India. Or answering annoying questions about Prussia.

        “We have been considering this for 10 years,” Ms. Gabrielle says. Ten years? It took them 10 years to be properly offended? “It's a step forward to eliminate ethnic stereotypes.”

        Or maybe it's just a really good way to get your crayons in the news.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at