In an episode of Breaking Bad, Walt and Skyler are invited to a birthday party hosted by old friends from grad school who have socioeconomically outclassed them. Nervous about what to wear, they ransack their closets for their nicest attire – a navy suit and a bright blue satiny party dress. But when they arrive at the party, they find themselves in a sea of neutral tones – whites, tans, grays, and taupes. Looking around in embarrassment, Skyler observes: “Jesus, it seems we missed the beige memo.”
This moment perfectly sums up the trend of beigeification that has taken over the white American upper-middle class. And the beige trend isn’t limited to fashion; it’s reflected in architecture, in decorating trends, and even in social media platforms. Shades of neutrals have replaced jewel tones and flashy prints. Brightly-colored flowers in homes have given way to brown wheat bundles and white cotton stalks, art replaced by wrought iron or empty windows with white trim. The dorm room trend of splashes of color and pictures of friends has been replaced by white quilts, beige rugs, and white twinkle lights. Your home increases in value when you paint over your bright blue walls with a shade called “silver mist” or “winter’s day.”
To the average American, beigeification is boring and a little pretentious. To those of us groomed to aspire to shades of beige through too many hours on Pinterest (guilty), it seems simple. Clean. Sophisticated. In her book on teens and social media, digital ethnographer danah boyd talks about the mass exodus from Myspace to Facebook and how it relates to beigeification:
Those who relished MySpace gushed about their ability to ‘pimp out’ their profiles with ‘glitter,’ whereas Facebook users viewed the resultant profiles as ‘gaudy,’ ‘tacky,’ and ‘cluttered.’ Facebook fans relished the site’s aesthetic minimalism, while MySpace devotees described Facebook profiles as ‘boring,’ ‘lame,’ ‘sterile,’ and ‘elitist.’ Catalina, a white fifteen-year-old from Austin, told me that Facebook is better because ‘Facebook just seems more clean to me.’ What Catalina saw as cleanliness, Indian-Pakistani seventeen-year-old Anindita from Los Angeles labeled ‘simple.’ She recognized the value of simplicity, but she preferred the ‘bling’ of MySpace because it allowed her to express herself. (boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014], 168-169)
Whether one sees it as sophisticated or lame – which are value judgments – factually, beigeification is about erasure. Erasure of color, of personality, of culture. It began in the 2000s when everyone was buying real estate. Everything was made neutral so that potential buyers had a blank slate to imagine their own style fitting into the home. And slowly, strangely, the blank slate itself became the style. (See Kate Wagner, “How Beige Took Over American Homes,” https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-beige-took-over-american-homes.)
But erasure does not celebrate personality, value culture, or honor diversity. And because it has become the style of upper-middle-class white Americans who love Pinterest, it can feel stuffy and unwelcoming to the Walts and Skylers whose nicest clothes are considered tacky and gaudy.
How does all this relate to youth ministry?
Confession time. Yours truly – Pinterest lover, pumpkin spice latte drinker, blank window hoarder, and one who sees light gray kitchen cabinets and thinks “ooh, pretty!” – quite recently thought, “Hey, we should paint over this terrible 2000’s bright blue and make this a coffee shop atmosphere!” You know, reclaimed wood, hand-lettering, some inoffensive shade of shale blue or sage green so light it’s practically gray as well. Oh, and twinkle lights, of course. But then a few things happened that changed my mind.
First, my sister, a fashion professor, told me about the phenomenon of beigeification and its social implications. We had a long discussion about how beautiful color is, and how strange it is that we white upper-middle-class people don’t like it. Following in the footsteps of our ancestors who scrubbed away the uniqueness of culture for the pursuit of “whiteness,” even if subconsciously or unintentionally, we’re all about erasure and conformity. So I began playing with bold color combinations, using the colors of autumn as an excuse. Green skirt, yellow cardigan, red shoes. Suddenly in my academic corner of the world, I stood out among the sea of neutrals. I got so many compliments. My favorite taupe skirt and white silk blouse lay forgotten in the corner of my closet.
Second, I’ve been discussing with my professors the dynamic of being a white youth minister to a diverse youth group. How do I look beyond my own cultural conditioning to teach in an inclusive way and meet the needs of all of my students, and not just the ones who are most like me?
Finally, at the National Conference for Youth Ministry this year, youth minister Adam Mearse was talking about the implicit messages that our teens receive from our youth room décor. “When your teens are tired of looking at you and listening to you, their eyes wander and their thoughts wander,” he reminded us. “What do they see on the walls of your youth room? What are they learning from it?” He was talking about sexuality, actually, but I began thinking about the implicit messages and theological implications of youth group space.
While church architecture and stained glass windows are often very impressive (and colorful!), the stained glass isn’t merely for show but for education. For those who didn’t speak Latin and couldn’t understand the Mass, the stained glass told them the stories of Jesus and the Old Testament heroes and the saints of the church. When their eyes wandered, they found something with theological richness and depth.
What is the theology of your youth group space? Perhaps your messy bulletin board with its pictures of smiling teens is a reflection of the body of Christ and those who make up your group. Perhaps the map on your wall reminds your teens of the world God loves. Maybe you have a meaningful logo on your wall, or the Bible verse that guides your mission statement. Maybe your ceiling tiles are painted by your graduating seniors, whose faith has shaped the community. When their eyes wander, what do they see? Do they see a space that reflects the love of God for everyone?
On a “practical steps” level, I’ve begun thinking that maybe a youth room redesign could begin by asking everyone in your youth group to text you a picture of their own bedroom, instead of assuming that your own style or current youth room trends reflect the personality of your group. What color is it? Are the walls covered with pictures? Posters? Quotes? How do they personalize their space? And stemming from that, what might make them feel at home when they’re at church?
And so, before we (I) rush to paint our youth room “silver mist” and replace pictures of our teens with hand-lettered inspirational quotes from Etsy, picture your youth group. Picture your congregation. Picture your community – the people to whom you hope to reach out. Who are the Walts and Skylers in your group? Who might visit from your community and feel uneasy and vaguely unwelcome in the space that you really hoped would be peaceful and relaxing? Whom might we be unintentionally excluding when we scrub away diversity and paint it beige?