Beyond the Color Wheel

Eleni Retta, Edmund Burke '19

Eleni Retta discusses how the associations with color inherent in our upbringing — light and dark with good and evil, respectively — influence the shades of bias we carry with us when viewing the world. (Published: 2018)

Illustration by Noor Amin, Sidwell '19

As a person pursues any creative outlet, they must keep two crucial things in mind: the perspective of their audience and their own perspective — what they have seen in their life that would influence how they express themself. Whether one is interested in writing, art, or merely expressing their opinion, they must be aware of what they have been taught, the environment in which they were raised, and what impact that has on how they see the world. As people, we like to believe that we are always conscious of our biases and preconceived notions, but the human inability to recognize the effects such things have on our perspective is an internal struggle of which we are not even aware.

A prime example of such awareness is colorism (prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group). Colors lies in the fact that they have no consistent definition. One cannot define “green” except as the color of grass and leaves in the summer; they can identify green but cannot explain exactly why grass is called green and not yellow or blue. The only justifiable explanation I can give is that at one point in my life, I was taught to associate different colors with their names. The reality is, artists used colors long before they were named. There was a time when people identified colors by what they made you think of and how they made you feel. Supposedly, this has since changed, but why is this important?

Subconsciously, we associate shades and colors with emotions and attributes. We associate the color white with purity, cleanliness, and innocence. Dark colors and shades are synonymous with evil, corruption, and inhumanity. In religious paintings, Jesus is shown wearing a white robe, whereas Satan, “the angel of darkness,” is portrayed as a darker-skinned man with black wings and clothing. It is very difficult, as a dark skinned person, not to take colorism to heart when the shade of my skin is automatically associated with negative things. As a child who loved art and using colors to convey my emotions, I struggled deeply with this concept. Although I was too young to fully understand the implications I greatly felt colorism’s impacts. It took me far too long to convince myself that the shade of my skin does not determine my identity, as it is only one aspect of who I, Eleni Retta, am.

These examples show that colorism has always been a relevant matter, but the consequences of colorism in society are becoming increasingly difficult to disregard, especially when

they can be noticed by simply turning on a television. When we see recent media coverage of police brutality, it is easy to question why the police officer wrongly punished an innocent person. If we choose to do that, we also have to analyze the root problems that may have caused the police officer to believe their actions were ethical. In my opinion, Such decisions seem more reasonable when you put yourself in the shoes of someone who has been taught that anything of a darker color or shade should automatically be linked to sin, wickedness, and wrong-doing.

Some would argue that the human species is too intellectual to use the same method that we use to distinguish colors to form opinions on human beings, but unfortunately, we are not. Biases, in this case colorism, work subconsciously in our brains. We should tackle colorism the same way we tackle any overarching bias: recognize its existence, identify the root causes, and challenge those causes at their core.

For example, casting a black man or woman as a superhero in a movie or creating a painting where the devil is shown wearing all white makes us question how we see not just color, but what we have been shown versus what is true: our bias versus reality. And in order to be the most informed and equitable people we can be, we must show and be shown different representations constantly.