It is an extremely common trope that white/light means good and dark/black means bad/evil.

I thought that - contrary to the appearances - the black/white symbolism is not racist. I believe it has nothing to do with an unfortunate period in history when people with a very light skin tone were oppressing people with a very dark skin tone. Instead, I suppose, this symbolism stems from the simple fact that humans are diurnal rather than nocturnal. For this reason for centuries, darkness meant one could not see anything. It was much harder to spot an impending danger. It was the brigands' favorite time to pillage our village and woe to you if you overstayed in the forest. From it stems the natural, cross-cultural phenomenon of people using 'dark' and 'black' as a synonym of 'bad,' 'evil,' or 'dangerous,' while 'light' is a synonym of 'good.' It also seems that our bodies need light for biological reasons and lack of light can lead to depression. This, once again, seem to hint that the black/white symbolism has much deeper roots than relationships between people of European and African descend and is orthogonal to the issues of racism.

However, at least in some cases, such usage of these words is frowned upon and declared rasist.

Should we avoid the use of black/white symbolism in our writing, even though color coding things can make the message very clear?

Does unfortunate historical context mean that we should not use the word 'black' for anything with negative connotations and the word 'white' for anything with positive implications? Even though it seems unavoidable anyway because I'd guess that human bodies are biologically predisposed to associate black with grimness and white with joy?

  • According to Wikipedia - Color terminology for race, "The Martinique-born French Frantz Fanon and African-American writers Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Ralph Ellison, among others, wrote that negative symbolisms surrounding the word "black" outnumber positive ones. They argued that the good vs. bad dualism associated with white and black unconsciously frame prejudiced colloquialisms. In the 1970s the term black replaced Negro in the United States." – rolfedh Jun 9 at 23:13
  • I agree that this question is seeking opinions, but I would like to place it in the context of the current discussions about race. I'm a white guy, and not qualified to speak about most aspects of racism, but the concern seems genuine. I would avoid white/black and try to look deeper. Every metaphor becomes cliche, which you must always avoid like a hawk. If there are aspects of the nocturnal/diurnal experience that you would like to use, go deeper into the roots of that distinction. Don't make things or people black and white, and expect that to have good implications. It won't. – cmm Jun 17 at 17:35
  • @cmm First, I don't have to give my characters a black hat or a white hat, as old Westerns did. Will I be a racist if one of my characters says to another that X has a 'dark personality'? This seems absurd, and yet this also seems precisely what the liberals nowadays imply. Then it is not necessarily always bad to reuse cliches. On the contrary, some works thrive on it. – gaazkam Jun 17 at 18:53
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    Again, as an old white guy, I can't speak for what a person of color would find racist. In my opinion, based on my personal biases, I don't find it racist. A dark personality, to the limits of my own self-awareness, is not correlated with skin color. But, you should be having this conversation with someone on the wrong end of biases, and get their experience. Do they find that dark traits are projected on them because of dark skin? – cmm Jun 18 at 18:56
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    Inherent: existing in something as a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute. Asking whether it is "inherently" racist seems to avoid the more practical question of whether or not it is reasonably seen as racist in today's society. And the answer to the latter seems to be obviously yes to me given the reality and history of racism. – T_M Oct 9 at 8:54

No, it is not inherently racist. But, no, you cannot stop some readers from deciding to call it racist.

White has often been associated with cleanliness and purity, for several reasons. These include the Sun & fire (the easiest way to sterilise things and make them safe for humans), which both give out light, and dirt & mud being dark (so a light surface is easy to see as "clean", or dirt-free)

Much of the association of "white" with "good" comes from this association with an item being clean or pure - including, for example, in Japan, or the Native American Hopi tribe. This demonstrates that the symbolism can evolve even in non-white ethnicities.

(As an interesting contrast, the Hambukushu tribe from Zambia had an old legend wherein their sun-god, Nyambi, is said to have passed all people through a fire after creation, to purify them. The myth continues that white-skinned people are those who rushed through the fire, while dark-skinned people are those who passed through slowly - thus, they had a culture where fire brings purification, and white items are pure/good, but white people are not)

When white is taken as a symbol of "good", then black is commonly taken as a symbol of "bad", due to being an obvious opposite.

But, to be perfectly honest - if someone sees "good object is white, bad object is bad", and immediately jumps to "that's racist" with no further indication of that being the case, then they might need to examine their own bias and prejudice. Which means your final point - making black "good" and white "bad" - is, if done purely for these reasons, not merely just as racist, but also attempting to dress it up in virtue signalling.

Put in another context, it's like interviewing a male and a female for a job, deciding that the female would not be able to do the job because she's female (which is sexist), and then deciding to give her the job for which you think she isn't qualified because she's female (which is, itself, sexist), all in an attempt to hide how sexist you're being.

(Doing so for other reason is fine - for example, associating black, void and darkness with emptiness and tranquillity and associating white, fire and the Sun with damage and chaos, or - in the interview context - deciding that while the female currently has far less experience in the field, she has advanced further in a shorter period of time than the male, so has a higher potential to become the better candidate in the long-term with the appropriate training. But, again, you still can't stop people reading additional overtones into your work/decisions.)

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To be honest, the answer to this question wasn't obvious to me until I started researching it and discovered this amazing article, Color Lines - A Chicago art class challenges the racist assumptions behind the color wheel by Olivia Gude, who is a community muralist and an assistant professor in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Here are some quotes from that article:

"Over and over, we discovered that lightness is associated with good and darkness with evil. Simba and his father, the true king of the lions, have light manes; the evil brother who wants to usurp the throne has a black mane and nails. We contrasted the good light animals with the threatening dark ones; the high chroma kingdom with the dusky and fearsome land of the marauding hyenas. We considered what this means in a story that opens with the notion that 'every living thing has its place in the great circle of life.' Of course, we could not help but hear an echo of the traditional racist exhortation to 'know one's place.'"

"Consider, for example, Joseph Conrad's classic novel of a European's encounter with Africa, Heart of Darkness. In the colonial worldview that Conrad examines, darkness is associated with the unknowable, the irrational, the primitive and the chaotic; light is a symbol of reason, order and progress. Such associations created the historical concept of "the white man's burden" to bring order and reason to "dark places" and thus the justification for the dominance of White cultures over peoples of color."

"Even if we succeed in dropping all art and literature that include offensive color symbolism from the school curriculum, our students will still encounter such symbolism daily in cartoons, traditional fairy tales and everyday expressions. The solution seems to be to help students understand the history of color symbolism and to deconstruct its use in contemporary culture."

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It's not surprising that, as a bunch of predominantly white privileged men, we are mostly answering "Nah - it's not a problem" followed by a list of explanations why it's not racist and change isn't required.

I'm saying, stop and listen to the many voices out there who have been and continue telling us that yes - this is hurtful language that discourages and excludes.

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I'd like to answer by presenting seven assertions followed by a question:

  • Symbols have no inherent meaning; we assign meanings to them.
  • Colors have no intrinsic meaning; we attribute meanings to them.
  • Symbolic meanings accrue and persist over time, based on repeated widespread use in words and images.
  • The meanings of widely understood symbols change slowly over time.
  • We use "black" and "white" to describe to people with darker or lighter skin and separate them into different "races."
  • We also use "black" and "white" as symbols of evil and good. We call this trope black and white morality.
  • American and European cultures have a long history of white supremacy and racism, which persists today.

Even if we do not intend to be racist, is it possible for us to employ "the often-used black and white symbolism" without evoking the racist meanings it has accrued over centuries?

I hope this helps.

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    "Yes, you should avoid using dark/light symbolism in an offensive racist way." Yes, you absolutely should avoid doing that. That isn't okay to do. I like your answer. But I think the original question wasn't, 'Is it okay to use dark/light symbolism in a racist way?' but more of a, 'Is using dark/light symbolism automatically racist?' – Tasch Jun 8 at 3:42
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    @rolfedh It looks like someone may have just gone through and downvoted every answer on this question a couple of hours ago – Chronocidal Jun 8 at 15:32
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It seems like the reason you're asking if it's racist is because you find it "obvious" that black is in fact bad and white is in fact radiant and good. I'd recommend reading the first book of the Recluce series, The Magic of Recluce. In the series as a whole, white represents chaos, and black represents order, but especially in the first book, told from the point of view of a young person raised by order-wielders, black is good (solid, stable, reliable) and white is bad (infection, fire, explosions, lies). It all makes sense in that context and will cause you to rethink your position that it's "obvious" or "undeniable" that white is good and black is bad. The characters are consistent and logical -- at least in the first book. Black mages (order wielders) can't even lie without discomfort, and mostly work as crafters eg woodworking, while white mages (chaos wielders) can throw fireballs and mostly work in armies.

If you want to reach for "black is bad and white is good" try challenging yourself to come up with a different metaphor. Not because it's necessarily racist, but because it will feel that way to some people, and there's no need for that.

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I'd say no, not really.

Here's a couple examples:

Around a certain time period (forgot the date) people in Africa were made into slaves by other Africans, then sold to whites, then whites made them slaves. They had a terrible journey to America (or whatever country it was). The reason why blacks were chosen as slaves, and not Native Americans, is not necessarily due to racism (it was somewhat), it was due to the fact that if the slaves ran away they could easily be found (due to the difference of melanin between Native Americans and blacks).

Around the same time, white were also made into slaves. This was known as the Barbary slave trade, with the count of slaves probably around a couple million (as one guy predicted). The journey for them was as terrible as the journey for the African slaves were. The life of these slaves were the same in some ways, worse in some ways, and less in some ways. For example, (if I recall correctly) all of the men were castrated, with only about 1/5th surviving.

Whites have also been slaves throughout history. So have blacks. Asians. Hispanics. Non-Hispanics. Native Americans. Etc.

Slavery is usually not racial, but can turn into a racial problem and cause some to think that they are better than others simply for being the enslaver or for having one's ancestors being enslaved at some point.

My point for bringing this up is not to make out some to worse, or some to be less. They all faced hardships, in different ways. No one's race is less or more for simply having oppressed or oppressor ancestors. It should just be remembered that all people are equal, and our ancestors all had hardships. We should not ignore the past oppression of a group simply because another group had been oppressed in the past.

We are all human beings, and we should respect that.

Now, to simplify my answer: No, it's not racist. I've thought about that possibility, but to be honest, I've thought about how it could and couldn't be racist. I've come to the conclusion that no, it isn't. Why? Because everyone's had it rough. It's just important to remember that we've all been the bad guy, the good guy, the victim, and the villain before. No one is perfect, and neither is their race.

So while it may seem that it could be racist, it really isn't. As we've all had it hard before, it just wouldn't make logical sense that saying that would be so. But "black and white symbolism" isn't racist. As long as you aren't trying to make it out to be racist, then you are fine.

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    While an interesting read, this doesn't seem to address the usage of the tint and shade "white" and "black" as symbolism for "good" and "bad" – Chronocidal Jun 8 at 8:37
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    This is writing.se, not Racism 101, so I'll just say that "I'm a biracial man, by the way" is not the justification that you seem to think it is. And as @Chronocidal said, you don't seem to have answered the question. – DM_with_secrets Jun 8 at 9:53
  • @DM_with_secrets Good point lol – Acid Kritana Jun 8 at 17:52
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    Ironically, the word "blacklist" comes from the names on the list being clearly written in black ink, and the earliest known examples contemporaneously associated with the phrase (i.e. not later called so by historians) were all lists of white people (such as the white judges who signed a death warrant to execute a white king, and were then in turn executed when his white son retook the throne - since their names were on "the black list"), and has absolutely nothing to do with race. "Whitelist" was coined as being the opposite. – Chronocidal Jun 8 at 21:36
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    @AcidKritana I'm not sure this is the place to go into it - but read some of what black people have written about the riots and about racism in general – DM_with_secrets Jun 12 at 21:07

Disclaimer: The following is just my own less than fully informed opinion.

I do not think one can argue that this symbolism is INHERENTLY racist, because the symbolism predates the white/black racism being referenced. In its original form it is most strongly linked to the color white having an association with light and black likewise with darkness, and it is the positive and negative associations about light and darkness that then carried over to these colors to create the original white = good, black = bad symbolism. This symbolism shows up in material far prior historically to black slavery and the period when the concept of white person = superior, black person = inferior became a common mindset (actually, you see these white/black, light/darkness themes popping up pretty much as far back as we have record of stories and literature. If you look through the Christian Bible, for instance, it is full of this symbolism). Honestly the fact that those with fair skin were the oppressors and those with dark skin the oppressed is an unfortunate coincidence with this preexisting symbolism. Were it the other way around with white people having been enslaved by black people, the white = light and goodness and black = darkness and badness symbolism would almost certainly still exist (since as I said it already existed prior), it just would be less likely to suffer the misfortune of getting tangled up with the skin color bias since it wouldn't be nearly as convenient for the people who want to think they are better than others. So, as I said, the symbolism is not in and of itself racist.

HOWEVER, that does not at all mean it cannot be racist. For those who believe that there is some sort of inherent superiority of light-skinned folks over dark-skinned folks, the symbolism of white = good and pure whereas black = bad and unclean is an awfully convenient prop to use to further justify their biases. Returning to the example where the Christian Bible is full of the aforementioned symbolism, I guarantee you this been used by folks who attempt to use their religion and their assumptions about connections between the symbolism and skin color to argue they have some sort of divine support for their racism (and as a counterpoint for those who are about to say "See? The symbolism is now associated with racism and is therefore now automatically racist!", if that is true then that goes for anything. And I guarantee you any Christian who both despises racism and believes the Bible is a holy text will object if someone were to argue that the Bible itself is now racist because people who are racists have attempted to use it to justify racism and some might now associate it with said racism as a result). Nevertheless, the fact is that there can be an association built there, so it is something we need to be aware of and careful with.

Should we automatically accuse someone of racism or furthering racial stereotypes because they write a novel with evil knights in black castles and good knights riding white horses? NO. The symbolism is too old and broad and widely found for us to narrow it down to a single potential association for use as a woke rage trigger whenever it appears. But really, it may just be better to avoid it in your writing (most people use it because it is so well known and has so may connections to other symbolic themes, especially the light/darkness bit. But there is absolutely no reason it has to be this way. As another answer mentioned, look at the Recluse novels. In that case the colors symbolized something completely different, in fact in many ways opposite from their stereotypical uses. Honestly many times relying on old, worn tropes in just laziness on a writer's part. Maybe your villain likes the color green and actually prefers his castle to be well lit. Give him some personality rather than making another deep voiced jackass behind a black scary helmet who only wants everyone to suffer for no reason.)

So when should we become angry about someone using the white/black color symbolism? Because I guarantee someone out there who is using it deserves a little wrath, right? I would suggest when there are other clues that imply something more than a simple white = light and black = darkness motif is being implied, or that motif is just one piece of a larger, suspiciously non-egalitarian picture. Are all the black people in the book stupid, jerks, or part of a less than civilized race while all the heroes are fair of skin and blond of hair? Or is there one token black guy in there who doesn't really do much but just seems to exist to be "the black guy"? Is the white/black symbolism expanded upon with world building that implies the color black ITSELF is evil and anything associated with it is also evil by default? Is the entire known world just white people despite there being lots of travel in the plot, multiple races, and lots of characters? You get where I'm going with this.

So in short, my answer to this question is that the white/black symbolism on its own deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt, but I don't think that means we should let authors entirely off the hook. Good writers ask questions like the one above and think critically about things.

Edit: I think something I was trying to get at but didn't manage to fully put into words in the original post is that not only does the white/black symbolism predate the current white/black racism, but it is STILL USED broadly enough that despite the fact it can be associated with racism its occurrence does not necessarily serve as a statement about race. For every white/black symbolism reference out there that has some connection to racism, there are myriads more with absolutely no connection at all, from all eras and genres of literature. Hence the association with racism, I would argue, is not strong enough to overtake and supplant the wider usage of the symbolism to the point that when an average person sees the symbolism they automatically make the connection with race. If this were to become true in the future (either because a very noisy group of racists start waving the symbolism around and or because a noisy group of woke political correctness gurus start complaining about the possible connection loudly enough that everyone starts thinking about it as connected) then we'd have a much greater reason to avoid using the symbolism entirely to avoid giving anyone the wrong idea.

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  • +1 here. It is a long answer, but basically hits the point that it asking whether it is "inherently" racist just evades the question of whether it is a racist trope or not. – T_M Oct 9 at 8:50

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