18 February 2010


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 19 February 2010

Last week's Commentary made mention of our culture's quirks, troubles, and chaos. This week, a quirk or so it struck me; at least at first. Maybe not as "incendiary" (as one reader put it) as last week 's topic but  interesting and certainly subject to opinion. 

Yellow--the color produced/seen when light stimulates the medium and long wavelength cones, about equally, in the retina. Short wavelength cones are not significantly stimulated. Rods, the other principle light receptors, confer achromatic vision so no need to address them today.

How many of you knew that?

Yellow is a primary color. A primary color defined as one that cannot be derived by mixing. Red and blue are the other primary colors. Through mixing yellow, red, and blue come secondary colors orange (yellow + red), green (yellow + blue), and violet or purple (red + blue), and all color--including neutrals--our visual system sees. Scientists and experts in vision will argue it's a bit more complicated, and it is, but you have the gist of it, and, besides, it does not matter for the purpose of today's opinion.

By the way, as an interesting side--Crayola took those six colors added neutrals brown and black (colors that can be mixed from yellow, red, blue) and the original box of crayons was born. The year was 1903 and the box sold for a nickel. The box of eight is still sold today though a nickel does not go nearly as far as it did 107 years ago.

Color brings flair and order to our world and for all sorts of purposes; advertising, decorating, dining, fashion, and managing first come to mind. One common functional purpose, across the planet, is to color-code mass transportation systems. As color brings order--simplicity--to a maze of what can be confusing and complicated, overlapping and interconnecting, routes of travel in big cities and metropolitan areas. That is, color eases the ability for passengers--especially the infrequent rider or visitor--to navigate. Remember, the munchkins gave color-coded directions to Dorothy and Toto in 'The Wizard of Oz,' "Follow the yellow-brick road."

Alright, enough of the tease. On to the heart of today's Commentary.

Last week--Wednesday it was--a news item out of Atlanta, Georgia, made the front page. The headline read, "Atlanta's Yellow Line Has Some Asians Seeing Red."

It seems the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) was charged with being 'insensitive' when renaming routes last fall. MARTA moved from a destination-based designator system to color-coding their lines--modeling after many of the world's mass transit systems. The "Doraville" (Northeast to South) line--named so because it was at the end of the line--and yes, that place in the peach state where 'rednecks drink wine on Sunday' as sung by the rock band 'Atlanta Rhythm Section' back in the 70s--was tabbed "Yellow." Seems harmless enough, right? Not so fast.

The issue that festered into a great big problem for MARTA--that Doraville, now Yellow, line runs through the heart of the Asian community. And the community--some but not all as most kept their heads--took offense to the name "Yellow line." Huh?

It struck me as stupid. So, just to ensure I was not being a completely irrational, heartless boob in need of touchy-feely sensitivity refresher training at the Kum Ba Yah International Institute for Group Hugs, I sent the article to one of the more level-headed people I know who also happens to be older and wiser--whom I am not related to--and will quickly and politely point out my errant way if so perceived. The verbatim reply--"YGTBSM! Time to move elsewhere yet?" To assist you with decoding the acronym, "Y" does not stand for "Yellow"--it stands for "You." The "M" stands for "Me." Perhaps you can solve "GTBS"?  My sentiments confirmed.

A few moments of research revealed "Yellow" lines are used throughout the world--not only in other large U.S. cities with significant Asian populations (e.g. San Francisco and Washington, D.C.) but other countries (e.g. Spain, Italy, France, India) as well as big cities (e.g. Tokyo, Seoul, and Shanghai) in Asian lands. So what's the problem?

A word intended to be used as nothing more than a designator was misconstrued into some sort of cultural belittlement. It did not matter it was unintentional. It was perceived.

A statement from the transit agency read, "In changing to color-code rail lines, MARTA wanted to enhance the ease of navigating the system and better align with industry trends." And their position continued, "MARTA researched transit maps throughout the world and found that many national and international systems use primary colors including yellow. Based on this research, MARTA decided to use primary colors."

MARTA also has a red, green, and blue line--just like other big cities with mass transportation systems.

Anyone else wondering if other communities, following the Asian lead, along the red, green, and blue lines, are busy shaping a complaint on their line name change? Oh yes, the Native American community along the "red line" is outraged. Opponents of the eco-friendly global warming types along the "green line" are likewise up in arms. What else? Who knows?

Easy to understand the offensiveness had "Yellow" been presented as Yerrow. Then okay, that could hardly have been interpreted any other way than tasteless and offensive. And I'd have been  first aboard the bandwagon blaring a trumpet to "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" for change. But the word, and color, used in its everyday form to designate, for simplicity purposes, a mode of transportation for the benefit of the public? Please.

A follow-up article on Thursday reported MARTA blinked and during that instant medium and long wavelength cones recorded a color shift--"yellow" to "gold." Though MARTA offered, "There was absolutely no intent to confer any negative connotation through the use of any of the colors chosen," they will proceed with the "gold line" name change at all 18 stops along the route, on printed material (i.e. maps), and whatever else needs to be re-colored to correct their crime as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.

Funny, some in the Asia community saw "red"--the color of anger--when everyone else, including many local Asians, saw plain old yellow. For the record, "red" is also the color of passion and sacrifice. So, where was the love?

Ridiculous! Ridicurous, too! Good grief.

And with all that said, as I was drawing this Commentary to a close life experience and a moment of leadership--sometimes referred to as "wisdom"--struck. The MARTA brouhaha easily explained when remembering words and symbols matter--they are powerful triggers, always dependent upon perspective, and make for a simple reality: Machines are logical and do not have feelings. People are not logical and are driven by emotion. For color harmony sometimes an adjustment, whether on canvas or the street, is necessary. In this case, "gold" works. And everyone smiles--happy faces; ironically.

Dwarfing the Atlanta MARTA rub, our restless country is eyes agog--looking for its line. Problems far more important than the color "yellow" and symbolism loom for the red, white, and blue with simple concession(s) seemingly not in the mix of remedies. We shall see--with neither cones nor rods necessary for a national vision. Yes, we shall see.


Bruce said...

Great acronym, Colonel - I agree 100% - as if that's a surprise. Some people just need to get OVER this nonsense. Perhaps we should just get rid of any color certain people don't like? Certainly black is a racist color. Red seems to offend "native Americans", so that has to go. Brown is perhaps offensive to certain people, so ... gone. Now yellow? What about tones of those colors? Beige? Tan? ALL yellows - or is it just the word itself - not the color? This is all so confusing.

Tom Hickinbotham said...

With 2 of our 3 offspring (Amy, Tommy)living and working in Atlanta, this is "much ado about nothing" as they see it. Political correctness run amok and all that rot, so to speak. Has been blown way out of proportion, but that seems to be the way it happens in this day and age...

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.