Dear Sally Hansen®:
I was in a wedding and in need of a neutral nail polish. I came across your Miracle Gel color, Birthday Suit. I was initially drawn to it because it was just what I was looking for, but when I read the name of the color, I was taken aback. I thought it was interesting that someone would choose this name, even though everyone’s “birthday suit” is not that color. Birthday Suit is not the color of my “birthday suit.”
I am a program coordinator for multicultural education at a university. As we teach our students about diversity and inclusion, and strive to develop their multicultural competence, we often talk about microaggressions. Naming this polish Birthday Suit is a microaggression.
Psychologist and Columbia professor, Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., defines microaggressions as “everyday slights, indignities, put downs, and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations, or those who are marginalized experience in their day to day interactions with people.” Microaggressions are often perpetrated by members of dominant groups and done so unconsciously, without negative intention or ill will. Microaggressions can (amongst multiple effects) make the dominate group seem “normal” while making anyone outside of that seem abnormal or as the “other.” Well, that is how I felt when I read the name Birthday Suit. I thought to myself, surely, they know this is NOT the color of all of their consumer’s birthday suits. It was frustrating and disappointing, but not shocking, because unfortunately, I have been dealing with this type of subtle racism my entire life.
The cosmetic and fashion industries are infamous for using “nude” to describe colors similar to Birthday Suit; so much so that some people think of “nude” as a color, without actually realizing that it is the nude color of a dominant group, white people. For decades, despite its discriminatory nature, brands and companies continue to use “nude” to describe their products (shout out to Nubian Skin for countering this and providing women of color with “a different kind of nude”). It is even more disturbing to know that until just two months ago (thanks to the Nude Awakening Campaign), Merriam-Webster defined the word nude as, “having the color of a white person’s skin.” So you see, there is already an issue here. That is why it is so disappointing and frustrating to see a color named Birthday Suit in 2015. Instead of fixing this issue that has long existed, Birthday Suit reinforces the problem AND diminishes another commonly used term (as done with nude), that everyone could once relate to, to now only describe the color of white people’s skin.
I understand that your company may not have intended to make me feel excluded or offended. That is often the case with microaggressions. However, I do not want this to be an instance where you explain how this was not your intention and we move on. Why? Because this is not just about nail polish; it is about addressing a type of bias that happens every single day that many are unaware of or ignore. It is important that we as a society start acknowledging the reality of microaggressions and their effects, and do something about it. This is a chance to do something; our chance to do something.
While we do not experience as much broad, overt racism as we once did, there is still subtle racism (often in the form of microaggressions) that can do just as much (if not more) harm. In today’s day and age, most people consider themselves to be “good people” who are well intended, fair, and do not discriminate. However, this situation is a prime example of how good people can be unaware of their bias, act in a discriminatory manner, and hurt people of color. People think we ended racism when we stopped overt racism (slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.) but that was only a part of the battle. We will not see race relations improve again until we become aware of and acknowledge the subtle biases possessed within our hearts and minds; the subtle biases that still cause discrimination.
I ask that you use this as a teachable moment and educate your organization on microaggressions through diversity trainings. I also ask that you change the name of the Birthday Suit color. And finally, I ask that your organization launch a campaign going against the idea of “nude” or “birthday suit” being one skin tone and leading the way for change in the cosmetic and fashion industries. I am more than willing to continue this conversation and be a part of these solutions. Please let me know how I can help. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you for your time.
Aleidra R. Allen, M.A.