We have wondered here in the past about the cultural constrictions we press into skin color, and a related and deeper issue is one of darker skin — Black skin in particular — and how it is socially demonized by negative, historical, intellectual and emotional touchstones associated with “Blackness.”

The argument goes something like this: The “good” things in life — sunshine, blue skies, clear water, a glowing heart — are lightly colored, while the “bad” things in life — blackouts, storm clouds, muddy water, evil hearts — are darkly colored.

We then begin to unconsciously anticipate and connect happiness with light colors and dread with darkness. Taking the next leap of the argument into the realm of White and Black we begin to see default value judgments connected to colors: White means pure, clean and safe while Black means tainted, dirty and dangerous.

Telling a White Lie is less venial than practicing Black Magic. Decaying, sick, skin turns Black as it dies while pus — made up of White blood cells — indicates healing and continued life.

Doctors wear White coats and fight “Black spots” on X-Rays while those who wish to harm you on the street dress in Black to avoid prosecution in the night. Light creates shadows. Shadows cover light.

Stars shine with White light in dark skies while Black Holes consume light. You play in the sunshine while monsters hide under the bed in the dark while you sleep. Some light requires darkness in order to be seen.

In the movies, Good Guys wear White hats and star badges while the Bad Guys wear Black and carry blued rifles.

At home, lightly colored paint makes a room look larger; Dark paint makes a room smaller — is that an emotional optical illusion or an intellectual scientific fact?

In Racing, a White flag indicates the final lap of the race while a Black flag means the driver is punished.

Using email, you Whitelist those you want to talk to and you Blackhole those you never wish to see again.

Arguments are crafted in “Black and White” where Black is the bad option and White is the good choice.

Grey plays no role. You’re either right or wrong. With me or against me. On the Dark Side or on the Right Side.

Black has many negative connotations — often without a complementary White opposite:

  • Black Monday
  • Black Plague
  • Black Comedy
  • Black Sheep
  • Black Cat
  • Blackball
  • Blacklist

What is your White and Black experience?

Is there an appropriate universal, cultural, condemnation and fear of Blackness that is earned in science and technology or is that concern of connecting badness and Blackness merely one of convenience?

Is it best to divide the world in two: Day and Night, White and Black, Light-Skinned and Dark-Skinned? If yes, then how can dark-skinned people ever escape their initial intellectual and emotional cultural coding as foreign, dangerous and impure?

Is it fair “Whiteness” — by societal default — is always considered an indicator of cleanliness, purity and safety?

51 Comments

  1. I knew my Bible schooling would come in handy one day.

    The Holy Bible: King James Version. 2000.
    The First Book of Moses, Called
    Genesis
    1
    The Creation
    1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
    2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
    3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
    4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
    5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

    http://www.bartleby.com/108/01/1.html

  2. David,
    doesn’t part of growing up involve the ability to look beneath this and other received prejudices? (there is also the evolutionary psychology bit where being unable to see in the dark made our primate ancestors were more vulnerable to their natural predators, therefore our ‘fear of the dark’)
    in everyday life in india, being dark-skinned also helps to sort out the sophisticates from the uncultured ignorants. fortunately – for everyone involved – i rarely have to meet or know or work with any of the latter.

  3. Dananjay —
    I understand from Katha that skin color is vitally important in India: The lighter you are the more “respect” you are due. Is that what you were suggesting in your comment?
    I agree lightness and darkness should not matter — but the invention of fire brought us light and warmth from the cold and dark — and I’m concerned that many people still unwittingly make that sort of either/or and never/will associations in the application of behavior and expectation when it comes to skin color.

  4. David,
    Katha is about that. but it exactly that pettiness that anyone with any level of urban sentience has learned to look past. i agree it’s something that’s drilled into us in india from childhood, you feel it in the air. it’s a part of contemporary media culture that essentially pampers the pet prejudices and beliefs of the largely unconscious public. and there are literally millions who are deeply wounded in their psyches by this.
    but if you’ve grown up in a multi-hued society with your eyes open you learn to look past it. i think it has a lot to do with culture and learning and growing up to be a feeling, sensing human. i agree the numbers of those are outweighed by the others but that’s the way the world is. 🙂

  5. That sounds like a rough life, Dananjay, where you are beholden to those who accept you as is instead of just accepting you.
    I think many would agree we give emotional meaning to colors — but few think the natural progression of transferring those color emotions to skin color is a process we should investigate and question.
    I call that a “natural progression” based on the metering of logic that when we learn something in one arena, the innate expectation is that learning will be transferred, and used, in other arenas — and to stop that natural progression of experience takes a careful and cogent person.

  6. Exactly, David. critical thinking is something that is neither encouraged nor learnt in many walks of life. and when an unexamined life is something you can get away with, the tendency is to do exactly that.
    also what i meant in my first comment is that, being dark-skinned i find it easier to guage a person’s prejudiced mind by their often unselfconscious reactions.

  7. Dananjay!
    Yes, critical thinking is important in moving forward together. We are surrounded by the self-centered — but few of them have the gift of introspection and self-values analysis.
    Can you share some of those “unselfconscious reactions” you have to endure with us?

  8. Dananjay!
    We have an international audience — and there are probably quite a few who have NO IDEA what you’re talking about or what you mean even though I have a pretty good idea.
    I am happy to receive insightful messages in email — but if you can find a way to provide an example to educate others in what to look for or how to behave or how NOT to behave… or how you were affected and how the experience changed you… you might be doing a world of good without even fully realizing it.
    I understand any story you tell on this topic is going to be awful and hurtful and painful to recall — and you can use whatever language you wish and I’ll publish it — but that impossibility is the task of the writer and one that we all try to serve as best we can.

  9. I am following all these with great interests, David. I am a Malay thus does this make me a black? or white? In my entire career, Ive met some, and on a few time, on the receiving end, being thought of as a lesser minded person by 1) two caucasians who are obviously not of my skin colour 2) a yellow-skinned guy (of oriental origin put simply), by simply being a Malay.
    I am lightly tanned, by the way.

  10. David!
    it has nothing to do with telling anyone how to behave or not to behave. and i still insist i cannot illustrate with an example. but for those who have no idea what i’m talking about leakage is all those signals that we send unselfconsciously whenever we are in the company of others. sometimes we even react to these signals unselfconsciously. some may say that this is the eternal music and dance and the soul of human interaction. it’s beyond spoken language and practiced mannerisms and affectations. and i’ve known from painful, personal experience that to obsess over this is tantamount to closing yourself up and may lead to a total breakdown in communication. the key is to be comfortable in your own skin and ultimately be free enough to be joyfully unselfconscious.

  11. Hi Hanie!
    Your question is incredibly provocative and asks: Do we define ourselves or do we allow others to define us?
    In this article:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2007/03/29/trumping-the-droplet/
    We discussed that a single drop of “Black” blood makes you Black in America in some circles.
    “White” is so interesting because Caucasians are tan, peach or pink — never white!
    Our Katha — a writer here — has shared with us her experience as a “straw” colored Indian who disappointed her grandparents by not being “peaches and cream” enough for their liking even though their son was darker than the woman he married!
    There are some who would accuse you of being Racist for using the word “oriental” in your comment. They would correct you by saying, “rugs are Oriental, people are Asian.” Does that correction make you a Racist? 😀

  12. Racist I am not 😉 And, I truly apologise if I had offended anyone with the word oriental. The word, if spoken on this side of the pond, has never been intended as an offensive word. Infact, the word Oriental would be the most polite form.
    Malaysia, after 50 years of independance and with its totally diverse mixture of races, still insist that you indicate your actual race in every official form (gasp!). However, it is perfectly normal here. To reflect on how normal it is, here is an example of a scenario commonly found in almost every street in Kuala Lumpur – you walk down the road in Bangsar (an upmarket area, filled with swanky shops) one afternoon. A Chinese guy is buying a loaf of Benggali bread from an Indian guy. A Malay girl is seen walking towards her office. Two white guys sitting at the Starbucks, enjoying their latte.
    Note the so-called racial names there. All these are perfectly acceptable here.
    And I know in some parts of the world, I could be labelled as racist as I write these!

  13. Hanie!
    I thank you for your honesty and bravery in your comment!
    We had a discussion here recently and learned the word “Negro” is still acceptable in parts of the UK — but in the USA that is an antiquated word that would quickly get one a public correction for being racially insensitive.
    I love your story about all the colors and cultures mixing in the name of commerce on the street!
    I have referred to my own skin color as “Lily White” because I am pale and from snow-covered Nebraska and I am so “white” that I look green under certain florescent lighting conditions.
    One delightful female Puerto Rican friend of mine once said to me, “Your face actually turns red when you blush! I’d heard that about White folk, but never thought it was true until now.”
    Ha! 😀

  14. Sorry I am late to the table today – but a friends birthday had to be celebrated.
    When David and I had the initial conversation which raised todays topic I made some notes. I had no idea that by breathing in white and out black I could be offending people and could be considered racist. I will change this to breathing in light and out darkness.
    Janna has raised the first of my notes ……..
    The biblical view –
    “4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”
    My second note is more of a ramble about earth based religions where the calendars and festivals and celebrations are determined by the equinoxes, the path of the sun, the length of the day and night, and the very basics of living – food supply.
    Spring you sow your seed, summer you nurture your seed, autumn you harvest your seed and store for the barren winter.
    Long summer days of sunshine were good for you – short dark winter days and long cold winter nights were bad for you.
    This element of light and dark was reinforced by the opening paragraphs of the Bible.
    Some comments on your *black list*
    The Black Plague was so called because one of the symptoms was the appearance of very dark (black) patches of skin and very dark freckles.
    Black Sheep – Meaning – A worthless or disgraced member of a family.
    Origin
    The first record in print is from Charles Macklin’s The man of the world, a comedy, 1786:
    “O, ye villain! you – you – you are a black sheep; and I’ll mark you.”
    It isn’t entirely clear why black sheep were selected to symbolize worthlessness. Possibly it is just the linking of black things with bad things, which is a long standing allusion in English texts – black mood, black looks etc. It may also be because shepherds disliked black sheep as their fleeces weren’t suitable for dying and so were worth less than those of white sheep.
    (Source – http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/66250.html )
    I personally quite enjoy being the black sheep of the family !
    Black Cat – this one bucks the trend – they are considered lucky in the UK – especially if they cross your path in front of you.
    They feature on Good Luck Cards along with Lucky Horseshoes.
    I will finish with an anecdote I heard today – we were discussing political correctness and how it can hinder communications at times between able bodied and less able bodied people ( my friend is in a wheel chair).
    He helps run a a local market and was approached by the local community police officer who indicated a wish to talk to him. Before he started chatting he asked my wheelchair bound friend if he should kneel down to talk to him. My friend was rather taken aback and asked why? To which the officer replied that they have now been instructed to ask how people in wheel chairs prefer to be talked to as there are some who do not like to be talked down to and prefer people to kneel when they are talking to them. My friend replied that he was not politically correct and wondered if that was why people do not approach and talk to him as much these days – if this is what people were being taught to do.
    The officer apologized and said that he had similar problems at work – he went on to say that the police force insists on calling him coloured – and as a Black man he found that offensive as he was black and proud of it!

  15. Love the research, Nicola, thanks!
    Black cats here are bad luck! They cross your path: Look out! Black cats are big around Halloween because they are so dangerous! 😀
    I like the police officer training and asking wheelchair folks how they wish to interact. I find the question thoughtful and fair and surprising. If everyone were so considerate of the “non-average” —
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2007/05/31/normal-discrimination-and-average-power/
    — we’d all be better off in the thoughtful lesson.
    In the USA I think “colored” is considered much worse a label than “Negro!”

  16. Hello!
    I believe very strongly that in our psyche light has always been associated with knowledge – we can learn about and eventually control what we are able to see – and ultimately that’s how we evolve – for example, the expression “to be in the dark” can be applied to someone who is ignorant of certain knowledge.
    I agree with Dananjay Anandan in that this light/dark opposition goes way back in our evolution: it is widely proposed for example (my degree is Archaeology) that Palaeolithic rock art in caves and rock shelters is subject to light criteria that determine the disposition of certain symbolically significant themes; also the “discovery” of fire is one of the most important steps in technical evolution – for the first time we are able to conquer the dark and keep away the dangerous beasts that take cover in it – from this start, it seems inevitable that light would become associated to good/beneficial in detriment of dark. I believe this is fundamental: as a species we don’t operate in the dark. Ideally, our activities take place “in the light”, during the day [well, most of them do x)].
    The Middle Ages are also traditionally called the Dark Ages, we know how scarce knowledge was at that time, that only very restricted circles had access to it, and that it was subject to and manipulated by religious/political forces. By opposition, note the name “Age of Enlightenment”, roughly XVIII Century in the Western World, coinciding with simultaneous intellectual movements, scientific breakthroughs, etc – yet again this relation: Light=Knowledge vs. Dark=Ignorance – Knowledge appears as a key element (although we know in the Middle Ages there were other unfortunate circumstances that more than warrant the name “Dark Ages” :/ ).
    In astrophysics, the example of “dark matter” because it is such an elusive thing, its composition still speculative… (well, the name also refers to our inability to observe it directly, but I think it serves both purposes, we knew much less about it 70 years ago when the name surfaced than we do now after all). Same with the black holes, we call them black because even light can’t escape them, but wouldn’t the name “gravitational holes” be more fitting and tell us more about them? But we chose ‘black’ – perhaps the dichotomy blackunknown/dangerous had some part in the choice of the name. And nobody can deny it is a phenomena that in our imaginary must fill us with some awe and dread, if even light isn’t immune to “that dark” x)
    So I think these two elements, light and dark, revolve much around the concept of Knowledge. The search for knowledge is one of the most powerful human drives – it brought us where we are now, so distant from the other fellow earthling species 😀 and it’s only natural that we favour the light that enables us to see, understand and control, in detriment of the dark that conceals and constricts. Light enables knowledge which gives us power; dark gives us nothing and makes us impotent to operate (we don’t venture in the dark if we don’t know what’s around us 😀 ; as you said David, dark paint makes a room seem smaller: a dark surface seems to absorb visible light (in truth it just doesn’t reflect as many photons) but unconsciously the impact the effect has on our mind (even if perceived only empirically) adds to the illusion, so it probably ends up as an emotional optical illusion on a scientific basis.
    Light=Knowledge/Power vs Dark=Ignorance/Impotence:
    We simply feel more in control of our environment, more in our element, when we are able to see; and what is image, but light? If we are unable to see, then all is beyond our control, and that thought terrifies us (probably mortifies us too – we not only like power, but it is in our nature to covet power as well :D). Light is associated to knowledge and the dark to the unknown – and subsequently it is from this ignorance that stems insecurity, fear, and prejudice of the “dark”. Now if we (unconsciously or not) extrapolate this prejudice of the dark to all things dark, we are incurring in the grave error of blinding ourselves, and racism is one of the unfortunate results.
    Sorry if this is confusing, my pc crashed and I had to rewrite everything again and it was hard to collect all my thoughts back… x)
    [By the way black cats are good luck here too, people even buy them for luck! :D]

  17. Thanks for the wonderful lesson, iris! Wowser! Powerful stuff there.
    I love your analysis and mind and I agree there are bright, stark, lines between “light” and “darkness” throughout the wild history of our world — and I am certain there are many people who are unable to disconnect those lessons from the personal interaction of their lives that is so necessary and so obvious.
    Warnings and demonization by color can be helpful to survival and evolution — but it only damages when applied to skin.

  18. That’s an excellent question, Katha, and one that goes to the heart of a previous argument of mine where people who get fake tans want to change their color — but not their racial identification — and that’s why tanning salons make them orange and not tan or Black or traditionally dark-skinned:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2007/06/20/invasion-of-the-orange-people/
    Tanning salons are only successful when they darken you with a color not found in nature or on any human skin.

  19. For all that is negative about black, the allure of “the little black dress” in dominantly non-black societies puts paid to all the other prejudices. No? Or is is just a taste of the exotic everyone is after?