Pink is for girls, blue is for boys.
At least, that’s what the idea that was reinforced for me over and over while growing up in North America. And following this strict logic, some people told us while my wife was pregnant with our first child that they wouldn’t know what to buy for our baby if they didn’t know the gender: should it be a blue or pink outfit? (As if the choice of baby clothes is binary, and while shopping for baby clothes, all the other colors of the rainbow suddenly cease to exist.) Associating gender with these two colors is, for better or for worse, strongly ingrained in our minds.
But the significance of colors swiftly changes when you travel outside of western culture. On my first visit to West Africa, a long-time expat here observed that “Here, a man can wear a pink “boubou”* and carry a tea set, and it’s just normal.” So while I still hesitate to don purple or pink clothing items even in this context, none of my African friends here would think twice if I did. My 4-year old daughter is already well conditioned by American norms: one of her favorite activities is to put on three or four layers of pink clothing (it’s cool season right now, so she won’t pass out from heat exhaustion), and she tells me that blue is for boys. Meanwhile, I chuckle at the teenage boy walking down the street to school with a pink Disney-princess backpack.
This cultural difference is pretty insignificant in every day life, of course. But I found the use of pink striking when campaigning began for the elections later this month. One morning, we left the house to find that hundreds of colorful banners had appeared on the streets and on houses, each color representing a party and candidate. A long stretch of paved road nearby currently sports a pink flag on each light post. If I had seen this in the U.S., I would think that it was an awareness campaign for the fight against breast cancer. Here, as I looked closely to match the colors of flags and banners with the posters for candidates, I discovered that pink represented the current president in his campaign for re-election. Pink stands for the most powerful man in the country!
I commented on this difference to some African friends: in one place, pink is for women’s health, in another it stands for the man who leads the nation. As we discussed the different connotations of colors in our different cultures, one of them said, “Red is the color we don’t like here. To us, it represents death.” That comment made me think twice about giving my wife a Valentine’s card with a giant red heart on it this weekend. But in the end, I shouldn’t worry: she’s American, so to her red is still the color of love.
* The traditional robe worn by West African men