Extradimensional Cephalopod lassoed itself a Comment of the Day (I love the image of a cepalopod using a lasso!) with his musings on why races were designated “black” and “white,” since the white/black dichotomy is so frequently used to describe good/evil.
Here is his—its?—Comment of the Day on the fifth item (about Twitter banning such words as “whitelist” and “blacklist”) in the post, “Independence Day With Ethics Alarms 3…Ethics Fireworks (and Duds)!”
I’ll be back at the end with a rather lengthy discourse of my own on this subject, because it’s a favorite of mine.
I actually find it annoying that on the one hand, human races (groups of humans who share some similarities in appearance) have historically been identified by colors associated with their skin, while on the other hand, completely independently and before meeting humans from other continents on a regular basis, Europeans started to use colors to indicate whether things are good or bad.
This etymology likely came about because when things rot they often turn black, and because blackness implies darkness (the absence of light), which most humans use to evoke ignorance, fear, or bad luck because they can’t see in the dark. (I use the metaphor of darkness in a much more neutral/benevolent sense, but that’s quite rare.) Interestingly, the color white is associated with death and mourning in many Asian cultures.
With the exception of finance (black ink marking positive numbers and red ink marking negative numbers), most historical evocations of the color black indicate evil, corruption, morbidity, or otherwise something negative. “Black heart,” “blackguard,” “black magic,” “black hat,” “black market,” “blackball,” “blacklist,” “black mark,” “black day,” “black comedy/humor”…
It creates a bit of cognitive dissonance for most humans when the word used to describe a group of humans is, for completely separate reasons, used to symbolize bad things. For this reason I have voluntarily avoided using the words “black” or “dark” to evoke negative connotations. That, and as I said before, I use the metaphor of “darkness” for a completely different purpose: to illustrate empathy, as opposed to light, which illustrates semantics. Both are necessary for effective communication.
If we could move away from identifying people by color, that’d be good. Humans identifying as “Black” may object, but they’ve changed their group self-identification labels several times already, so there is precedent. Identifying human appearances by continent (Europe, Africa, Asia, Americas) is also difficult because humans can move around and live elsewhere. I’d like to get a bunch of humans of the same race in a room together to decide what they themselves want to be called, and watch them tear each other apart. No matter where they’re from, humans never learned to be wise and mature in groups.
I will continue to use “sanity check,” though. I use it in a self-deprecating fashion, when I ask for a sanity check to verify whether my conclusion is sane or not.
It’s me, Jack, again.
It is well to remember that it was the whatever-you-call-it race that hails from Africa that decided itself to pick the term “Black,” and then “black,” and now back to “Black” again. For a very ling time “Negro” was considered respectful, and it was black activists and leadership aho chose Black, decreeing that “Negro” was now disrespectful. Of course, negro means black, and it had similarly replaced the previously used “colored,” which avoided the black distinction entirely, if scientifically inaccurately, since black is the absence of color. The transition to “of color” was always illogical and clunky (“of color” means colored, which is taboo; I refuse to play, and almost never use “of color.”)
Black, I am pretty sure, was settled on by activists in the 1960s because black is considered intimidating, powerful and kind of cool. Women wear “little black dresses” that are sexy and go with everything. Black suits are considered dignified: in Africa, I discovered, it is considered unethical for lawyers not to wear one. Judges wear black robes, ministers wear black. The Oakland Raiders famously chose black and silver (but mostly black) uniforms to intimidate the opposition. Johnny Cash certainly wasn’t suggesting menace when he branded himself as “The Man in Black.”
As with many other matters in American culture, Western movies had a hand in the image of black and white. Western novels didn’t make white hats and black hats labels for the gunfighters wearing them, but the movies made out of those books did. Having the good guys wear white or light-colored hats and the bad guys wear black hats helped the audiences follow the action. It wasn’t a universally followed convention—Hoppalong Cassidy wore black head to toe; so did Bret Maverick and Paladin on “Have Gun, Will Travel,” and the leader of “The Magnificent Seven” (though the idea was that he was a hired gun doing a good deed who usually didn’t) but the convention was observed frquently enough that “white hat” came to mean “good guy” and “black hat” the opposite.
I was surprised when I bought a paperback of the novel “Shane” and saw that the eponymous hero was pictured in a black hat, unlike Alan Ladd in (perhaps) my favorite Western, whose hat was white. The joke was that you knew it was an “adult Western” when the good guy wore a black hat. It was no coincidence that John Wayne wore white hats in “Stagecoach,” “Hondo,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” “Rio Bravo” and “The Cowboys,” when he was an unequivocal hero, but black hats in “Red River,” “The Searchers,” “The Shootist,” and “True Grit,” in which his characters range from dicey to fanatic to borderline psychopathic (in “The Searchers’).
Okay, that was a tangent. You know, me and Westerns….
The problem isn’t really black and white as far as race designations are concerned. Several linguists have pointed out that a group usually decrees that its old name is offensive and chooses another when it wants to clean the slate: the way the group fared under the old name was linked to negative experiences and outcomes, so the name itself had become negative too. It’s a pure cognitive dissonance scale calculation. See?
If the experiences and results blacks had experienced in the country were mostly in positive territory when they were called “coloreds,” or “Negroes,” or “blacks,” any of those names would be fine now. Until a name coincides with status and outcomes that members of the group deem satisfactory, the labels will keep changing.