I have been reminded this week about the attachments we make to colours. They do not remain neutral, but take on memories, emotions and prejudices. I wrote last week about a book I find helpful at times of stress, The Lord of the Rings. One of my favourite characters, apart from the Hobbits of course, is Gandalf. He begins as Gandalf the Grey but ends as the White, the head of his order. He struggles against the evil force of Mordor, the Dark Lord Sauron. Sadly, this is just one more example of literature in our western culture that expresses the polarisation of good and evil as white against black. Like the cowboy westerns I used to watch as a child, you always knew who the ‘good guys’ were by their white stetsons.
This sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle message of the colours infects our thinking, our attitudes and our behaviour. It has influenced our understanding of history: do you remember learning about the ‘dark continent’? It affects our judgement of others, think for example of ‘white supremacists’.
A friend suggested that we could at least use traffic light colours as an alternative to the black/white divide in our training courses. And this would be an improvement I think. But even the colours of red, amber and green are significantly associated in our minds with memories, attitudes and feelings. Red implies danger and fire, but also Hell. Playing football in a red shirt could make you one of the ‘Red Devils’. Green is most commonly linked nowadays with eco-friendly policies and practices, but it still carries the undertone of raw, immature, and hence naivety. Amber, or yellow, has its own connotations, I hardly need to spell them out.
When these associations of colour are then applied to people according to their skin tone, then we have a ready basis for racism. Being alert to the hidden ways in which our own culture has socialised us can help us resist and overcome deep rooted biases. The rainbow becomes again a potent sign of unity and peace, where all colours exist together.