Rice Color, Skin Color and the New Cultural Color Code

There was a time when everyone wanted to be white. That was especially true for poor Asian farmers who labored in rice paddies under the hot sun so they could eat a little white rice occasionally.

Now, of course, anyone with a lick of sense has given up white rice — except when they can come up with a good reason for making an exception. (“Darn, this restaurant doesn’t serve brown rice?”) This is part of the larger color shift taking place in the world, from white to brown, from light to dark, from refined to whole grain, from artificial to natural, from smooth to textured.

You get the picture. Anything that looks like it could have come out of a machine is now scorned as unhealthy, uncultured, unnatural, uncouth, simply unacceptable. That shift toward whole-grain natural goodness has spilled over into skin color. Back in the old days everyone from geishas to Queen Elizabeth to Peking opera heroines slathered on powders and creams to achieve that deathly pallor on their faces and hands. Now everyone and her aunt is visiting tanning salons or spraying on bronzers to turn down their albedo a few notches so no one thinks she’s terminally ill or is forced to work in an office 24/7 like some big-firm slave.

This shift is having profound repercussions for plain old Asian American Janes like you and me. It means we are now the gold standard in color correctness. Instead of us trying to be like them, they’re trying to be like us. And this color shift doesn’t end at the skin; it extends to cultural color. If being brown is being “down”, a golden glow is being cast on our culture and behavior as well. I don’t have to point out the explosion of sushi bars, Korean barbecue and tofu houses, Indian tikka houses and Viet noodle shops. We’re also seeing an explosion of smart, sassy Asian chicks nattering on about finance and economics and such on all those busy-bee business channels. And when a company wants to say their drugs or mobile devices or financial services are smart, they put an Asian face front and center. Maybe it has to do with all those Asians pouring out of the top colleges and into investment banks and med schools and tech firms.

Remember when we used to ditzify our voices, blink a lot and wear blue eye shadow in hopes of emulating those Waspy-looking Valley Girl types? And how we used to want to learn to surf and play field hockey to establish our bona fides as beach babes or preppies? That was then. In today’s brown-rice world the burden’s shifted to us to set an example for young women wanting to know what it takes to snag impressive admission letters and high-paying jobs in a down economy. They want to know how to dress and speak to command the attention of middle-aged men hoping to pick up tips on juicy investments, or at least some high-powered new eateries.

Now that’s real power, Baby!