MAD DOG: Coloring Outside the Lines

Any day now it will be safe to buy crayons again. Stop worrying, there's no e.coli contamination. And no, they haven't been found to cause cancer (except maybe in laboratory rats that inject them). What has been discovered -- hold onto your coloring books, kids -- is that crayons can cause massive breakouts of political correctness.The defining moment -- or more correctly, the outlining moment -- came when Maryalice Lamorte of Yardley, Pennsylvania reported that her son said indian red crayons were so named because they should be used to color Indians. Unfortunately she reported this to the wrong person.Even though Maryalice says her son was making a joke, or perhaps just showing off, Binney & Smith, the company that's been making Crayolas since 1903, decided that was all they needed to hear in order to change the name, which actually comes from a reddish-brown pigment found near India. And just to prove how seriously they take this, they've decided to sponsor a contest to "Name the New Color". It's nice to see they won't let a little public relations problem get in the way of a good corporate promotion.This isn't the first time the company has done this, though admittedly it's not a common occurrence. Okay, so they've only renamed colors twice before. The most well known was in 1962 when flesh crayons became peach because, well, they realized that everyone's skin isn't peach colored. Face it, no one's skin is peach colored. Well, not unless they're hospitalized with jaundice.This name change was a good move, in spite of the fact that it's worrisome that for 59 years kids had been thinking that someone somewhere actually had peach skin. Interestingly, it took Pentel, who makes most of the crayons used in Japan, until 1998 to get around to changing the name of their "skin color" crayon to pale orange. It's a good thing for them they didn't opt for pale face or they really would have had their hands full.I suspect that there were a couple of people who really were offended by the name indian red. Nowadays there's nothing that won't offend someone somewhere. Face it, as a nation we're entirely too sensitive. A number of years ago when I put out a cute, cuddly, humorous stuffed toy called Earl the Dead Cat, I was bombarded by hate mail. And orders. Interestingly, most of the people who objected, it turns out, didn't even own a cat. As if anyone can really own a cat.Like the Earl the Dead Cat haters, I'll bet those who object strongest to indian red crayons aren't even Indians. Or native Americans. And they're probably so dedicated to the subject that they won't watch Atlanta Braves games, drive the long way around so they won't have to set foot in Indiana, and call the local TV station each time the weatherman mentions Indian summer. I'll admit, if Crayola came out with a color called "Pennsylvania Peckerhead Purple" then people like Maryalice would have a right to be offended. After all, everyone knows Pennsylvania Peckerheads are red.What's in a name, anyway? The only other time Binney & Smith renamed a crayon was in 1958 when prussian blue became midnight blue because people thought Prussia was a misspelling and had long arguments about who was the illiterate, Binney or Smith. Just kidding. Actually they changed it because they didn't think kids knew anything about Prussia. Right, like kids who draw with crayons know what the sky looks like at midnight. (Hint for the kids reading this: It isn't blue; it's pretty damned black if you ask me.)The meaning of words is a touchy subject. Whose interpretation is correct, the person who wrote or said it, or the one who reads or hears it? David Howard, head of the Washington, DC Office of Public Advocacy, was fired (and ultimately rehired) a while back for correctly using the word niggardly because some people claimed it sounded like a racial slur. So what happens when someone informs Binney & Smith that their kid uses burnt sienna to color burn victims? Or the new "granny smith green" to color Grandma's face, even when it's not a drawing of her being on the receiving end of the Heimlich Maneuver in the buffet line?Crayons have been around a long time. They not only have their own postage stamp -- which disappointingly is all colored within the lines -- but also have a 64-crayon box complete with sharpener on exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution, something normally reserved for space capsules, dinosaurs, and John Glenn, who is the only exhibit there that encompasses both categories. They're an icon. They're universal. They're crayons, for god's sake. Maybe what they need is to come out with a new crayon: colorblind. They can make it out of pure paraffin (leaving out the other half of the ingredients: pigment) which will save them money. And headaches. Sure it won't look like much but it also won't piss off anyone either. Well, as long as no one opens their big mouth and tells the sight-impaired about it.


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