Why can’t I Call Yellow, “Purple?”

So when I was like three, I asked my mom a question.

I’m not sure I was exactly three because I have probably 40 memories tops of the time before I was about 10. But I lived in New York, so I was no older than six. And I have memories of shitting my pants for reasons other than being really really sick since this memory happened. So I think three is a good age. But I need to qualify it with “like.”

So. When I was like three, I was sitting in the kitchen, playing with my crayons. Coloring, drawing, scribbling, eating them. Whatever.

And I asked my mom why I couldn’t call one color by the name of another.

I don’t remember which. Call green red, or call yellow purple.

You see. The color came first. What we call it is a fabrication. We just assigned it a sound to refer to it. And all agreed on that sound so that we could know what we were all referring to when we made that noise.

It wasn’t so articulate at like three.

But I distinctly remember thinking, more or less, that, “the color is just the color, so someone just made up the name. So why can’t I call it what I want?”

My mom said to go ahead.

So. By age three. I was already an anthropologist.

And not much has changed. I’m a little taller. That’s about it.

I’m gonna use that same lens that I was already sorting out in 1986 to look at sex and gender.

I don’t mean sex as in sexual intercourse. I mean sex as in biological sex. The state, I guess. Not the activity (past time?). And gender, as in the qualities associated with the sexes. Most people treat them the same. And really, for a lot of people the distinction probably doesn’t matter all that much.

But they are different. They’re different enough to where when I am filling out a form and they ask my gender, I consider what information they’re actually looking for. If they’re wondering what my sex is, I cross out “gender,” write “sex,” and fill it out appropriately.

My name is Joe. I’m a man.

That tells you something. Potentially a lot.  Maybe not. But definitely something.

Something about my anatomy. My genitalia, for one. I’m probably a bit taller than the average woman. I probably have a bit more body hair than the average woman (and…as it were…probably the average man, too). My voice is probably a bit deeper than the average woman’s. And I probably have a bit more muscle mass overall than the average woman.

But it also suggests some other things, too. I probably like football. I probably like strip clubs and cars. I probably don’t wear outlandish or bright colors. My hair is probably short. I’m probably messier than I need to be and a bit more oblivious to the subtleties of conversation than most women prefer. And I’m probably uncomfortable talking freely about my own emotions.

The latter is an example of gender. Not so much my biological makeup as much as the behaviors and attributes associated with my sex.

It’s fine to have these categories. But they can be problematic. Categories lead to expectations. Like yellow and purple.

Any animal communication has some kind of consensus. Even if it’s just expressing concern or familiarity in general. Communication gets pretty complex. Vervet monkeys, for example, have several calls just for predator alarms. They have different calls for say, prey birds and snakes. They have to be consistent and everyone has to know them.

If I hear the call for prey bird and think snake, I’m the idiot that’s gonna get eaten.

With humans it’s gotten even more complex. If I say “tree” you immediately think of a fairly large plant with a woody stalk that’s pretty thick. It’s got some branches radiating out in all directions. The branches may start at the bottom, they may start a little ways up. But you have this kind of umbrella concept of what a tree is. It’s specific enough to be able to tell what isn’t a tree, while also being able to identify what is, even if you’ve never seen that particular kind of tree before.

If I tell you I’m gonna be asleep under that tree over there, and you picture a pine tree specifically, and I’m talking about an oak…you’re not gonna find me.

If I tell you I’m asleep under a tree and the word “tree” in your culture means “cow” in mine…we are gonna have a bit of a mix up.

So. The categories lead to expectations. I expect you to think “tree.” And they also, for reasons of needing to know what’s going on, lead to rigidity.

In the case of the cow, we’ll just laugh it off and think the other is kind of stupid.

But individually, we find our identity in the group. Everyone agrees that a tree is a tree, and we’re going to call it a tree. And our reality is shaped by that consensus.

So the categories lead to expectations, which lead to rigidity. When that rigidity is challenged, the group as a whole and potentially by extension our reality and identity as well. And that’s where this babbling comes in. Because both sex and gender are constructed–at least in part–by culture.

They’re separate but overlapping. One is biological with cultural components, one is cultural with biological components.

Biologically, two sexes are needed for reproduction. In the natural world, I mean. Modern science can take a stem cell from a woman, grow it into sperm and artificially inseminate her partner and then two same-sex partners can have a child who is biologically related to both of them. I’m not talking about cases like that. I think they’re amazing and beautiful and exactly what should be happening. But I’m removing everything that happened before culture took over the majority of our evolution.

So you need two sexes for reproduction.

But we have a confusing history there. We need two sexes, but which one we are attracted to varies in as many ways it can.

Primates also need two sexes. So as primates this shouldn’t surprise us. Same with mammals. And probably the mammal-like reptiles from which we evolved. And the reptiles from which they evolved. (yes, evolved. that’s not a discussion I’m having here.)

And the amphibians that got this land-party started? Well, you’ve seen Jurassic Park, right? (please tell me you have)

Amphibians can swap sexes if need be. Has to do with the amount of hormones in the water or something. Sausage party? No problem. Even birds! There are medieval accounts of chickens being burned as witches because they spontaneously changed sex.

My friend runs a farm. It’s happened to her birds. She’s got more roosters than she’d prefer now. And before the amphibians…our ancestors were lobe-finned fish.

So really, our evolutionary history has left a path of things not-so clear cut.

A couple other examples from the animal kindgom…there are asexual snails. Which is pretty cool.

Some fish have figured out parthogenesis. Which is a kind of asexual reproduction.

Radiolarians may not have two sexes. I read some stuff on them that they may only have a female sex. Wild.

And then! There’s this one mite called Histiostoma murchiei. And it’s pretty weird. They’re all female. And they reproduce asexually, but have all male offspring.

Then they get down with these male offspring and have female offspring with them.

So anyway, what I’m getting at is that even biological sex isn’t so obvious.

As many as 1 in 1500 (I’ve read 1 in 1000 but can’t find the article right now) babies are born intersex.

Ehlers Danlos is a soft tissue disorder. I have a close friend with it. Her father has it, too. It’s less common than intersexuality. So is Marfan Syndrome.

So is Down’s Syndrome if you take the 1 in 1000 statistic.

The same author who suggested the 1 in 1000 statistic also said that she believes we need as many as five sexes.

I like the sentiment, but what happens when someone bucks that system, too?

So. Back to gender.

It’s the ways in which our behavior correspond with our anatomy.

You know I’m a man.

So if we met, you wouldn’t expect me to be wearing yoga pants and a tank top. you wouldn’t expect purple cat eye glasses. You wouldn’t expect shaved legs. And you probably wouldn’t expect dangly earrings.

If I did have any (or all) of the above…you would notice. That’s not to say you would judge. Or mind. But you would notice.

Those are those categories. You notice because of that consensus about gender that everyone agrees on even though plenty of people don’t really know what gender is. They just think it’s “natural” for men to freak the fuck out about football. Or “natural” for women to have long hair on their head but absolutely no hair whatsoever elsewhere on their bodies.

So if you noticed me dressed like I described above. You’d notice.

“Ok. So Joe calls ‘yellow’ ‘purple,’ comes dressed in yoga pants and a tank top, shaves his legs and wears dangly earrings.”

Maybe you think that’s just me.

But that type of thing is where the issues are invited.

So now take this. If you read a description of someone. Just based on their interests. Think of it like Guess Who only you’re not describing physical traits. Maybe it’s a profile on a dating site:

I love to bake. Bread, cookies, some candies. I love to cook breakfast in bed for my partner. I love cats. I would rather hang out with my friends and talk than to go out clubbing. I don’t have any issue talking about my feelings and emotions about, well, really anything. My hair is getting long again, and sometimes I miss when I had it all the way down my back. I wear eyeglasses and my favorite pair is purple–it’s almost pastel. I love them. I keep my house pretty clean but sometimes it gets a bit messy at times. I don’t care much for cars. I would rather go for a walk or hike. I can’t stand football and don’t understand why guys get so worked up over it.

Would you think that was a woman? A man?

It’s me, actually. 6 foot tall athletic man. A bunch of tattoos. I had facial hair from 2003 to 2014. Straight. I don’t really necessarily look like the sensitive type at in some incarnations.

Combining my sex with a good bit of my personality and the fact that I am heterosexual has led me to comment that my gender is lesbian. It’s probably about half a joke.

So anyway.


In America, the expectation is that men and women will be comfortable in the roles associated with their sex.

It’s assumed that men will do man things, women will do woman things. They will conceptually feel comfortable with this and the ways they express themselves will indicate this.

That state of psychologically and emotionally “agreeing” with your biological sex is called cisgender. Cis meaning “on the side of.”

If you are male, feel male, present yourself as male and feel completely comfortable with what’s expected of you as a man, you’re cismale.

Clearly this can be subjective. And yes, it can get complicated. But that’s basically it.

And that’s kind of the default. American people historically have formed their identity and reality based on that consensus.

But plenty of people aren’t quite comfortable with that. As those people came to identify as other, and met other people who did the same…new categories are formed. And people who identified as other formed groups and subcultures based on their new identities as queer, gay, homosexual, gender queer, gender fluid. Or whatever.

And. It challenged the reality of the majority. A rigid reality and status quo. It invites discrimination, hatred and violence.

But. It’s arbitrary. (Here is where we really start to anthropology, folks!)

I have a few pretty great examples of just how arbitrary sexuality is.How arbitrary gender is, and gender roles are.

And how even biological sex itself can be culturally constructed.

The first is from America. The indigenous tribes of the Great Basin have this really neat ceremony called the “Basket and the Bow” ceremony. In essence, a child will be presented with a basket or a bow. These are associated with manhood or womanhood. If a boy chooses the basket, or the woman chooses the bow, they are designated as two-spirit. A woman who chooses a bow can dress as a man and take a wife, go hunting and all that good stuff. A boy who chooses a basket can dress as a woman and take a husband.

And this is different, in these cultures, from homosexuality. Two-spirit people are somewhere in between man and woman.

In India, there is a third gender. Hijra. Men who may be gay or straight, intersex or not, just don’t exactly fit in psychologically with the roles assigned to them. They will often leave home and join hijra communities. They will often undergo surgery so that they are no longer biologically male, yet fall somewhere in between man and woman. They are viewed as deviant while often being simultaneously revered.

Lastly, there’s this tribe in New Guinea called the Etoro.

They are an incredibly misogynistic society. Not shocking.

The men and women live completely segregated from one another. And boys only live with the women until about age six.

After that, there is no contact. Women are essentially viewed as incubators.

And sperm is where it’s at.

Sperm is the essence of manhood. Sperm is the eventual child.

Men perform oral sex on one another in order to become powerful.

Boys perform oral sex on men in order to become men.

And the women?

They perform oral sex on the men. Why? Because sperm is where breast milk comes from.


So. That’s true. All of it.

And all of the homosexuality isn’t an issue in their society. It’s actually the norm. And heterosexuality is permitted for 100 days a year. For reproduction.

Because sexuality is kinda sorta culturally defined.

In non human animals…sexuality isn’t really a thing. Not how we think of it anyway. It doesn’t matter so much who you have sex with, you’re just not going to reproduce if you’re not having sex with the opposite sex.

There are pheromones and things that attract members of the opposite sex, particularly during estrous. Some individuals may never mate with a member of the same sex.

But really..it’s only a “thing” to us. Sexual orientation only “needs” to be defined because we need to categorize and describe everything. We attach values and judgments when really it is arbitrary from culture to culture, though predisposition and orientation is very much a real thing. I’m attracted to women. I didn’t chose that. I have very good friends who are gay or bi. They didn’t chose that, either.

But when you have a majority that is so bound and directed by their norms, so restricted in their views and so encouraged by their peers…a challenge to reality can quickly go from “oh Joe just calls yellow, purple” to hatred and violence in order to maintain identity. It’s an oversimplification, sure. But it still happens.

People talk about tolerance, but to me, tolerance isn’t enough.

I don’t like my job. I tolerate it. I tolerate it until I get to a certain point financially and educationally to where I can better myself and move on.

Toleration implies discomfort. I tolerate dental fillings because my life would be a lot worse if I let the cavity stand.

I tolerate because it will eventually go away.

I feel like our categories don’t have to completely change so much as to expand significantly. Our identity kind of has to shift. Our gendered associations have to become more loosely defined.

Upon first meeting me, there really shouldn’t be any curiosity about why my glasses are purple. Or why my shirt depicts a cat riding a bicycle (I love that shirt. Thank you, Mindy!) Or why I don’t know if the football team is the Bengals or the Tigers.

At some point, you just have to say, “Joe just calls yellow, ‘purple,'” and fucking get on with your life.


About Pedal Powered Anthropology

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. This blog is intended to be for the development of my own positions and ideas, mostly regarding paleoanthropology and paleontology in general, with a heaping helping of evolution on top...but also includes bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

Posted on 01/09/2015, in Social Justice Babblings. and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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