We’ve noticed a volume of questions on the topic of Black and White symbolism in works. Light and white symbolizes good and pure. Dark and black is bad and evil. It’s an age-old trope deeply engraved throughout Western society, language, and cultures.
She’s having a “black day.” He’s the “Black sheep” in the family. The evils of “Black magic.” They’re “Black as one is painted.”
On the other hand…
They told an innocent “white lie.” He’s “whiter than white.” Good ole “White-collar” jobs.
These were just a few phrases found in the dictionary. The most frequently used dictionaries were written by racist old white men, so most of the language has been shaped by them.
If you flip further back you find entries like these:
Now, this guide comes from a western particularly American lens of the
view of Black and White and its connotations. We recognize that B&W
color symbolism and meaning varies across cultures.
western society imports its racist views across the globe,
strengthening the Black as Evil and Good as White association within its
“conquest” of mass media.
The Trope Incorporated into our Media
This trope is so normalized in Western culture that it is often unconsciously used and incorporated throughout many aspects of culture. It can easily be found in media, such as our TV-series, movies and literature:
The black, darkly-dressed or featured characters are often the villains or antagonists,
The white or light-featured characters are often the heroes, dispelling the world of the dark Others.
Also note that usually when good guys wear black, they’re more anti-heroes than full-heroes.
Tolkien really let himself go with this trope in Lord of the Rings and has the pure white race of elves be ethereal, wise, super good and natural *angelic singing*. Then there’s the orcs on the other side who are barbaric, unintelligent, violent and disgustingly ugly. Their language is black speech by the way.
“The Black Speech, also known as the Dark Tongue of Mordor,
was the official language of Mordor. Sauron created the Black Speech to be the unifying language
of all the servants of Mordor, used along with different varieties of Orkish and other languages used by his servants.”
“It is notable that the letter “e” is
totally absent from the Black Speech. It was omitted on purpose for being a
favourite letter of the Elves, and for forming a smile when uttering it.”
“In real life, J. R. R. Tolkien created this language
with the intention of making it harsh and ugly…” then later on in the same
piece is written: “…the forces of good
refuse to utter it.” and “Tolkien
designed it to be unpleasant in his own mind…”
So with these quotes you can see the
link between calling it “Black speech” and the unpleasant, evil and anti-social aspects
of the named. Quotes are taken from here.
Many epic fantasy writers mimic Tolkien in his use of fantasy races and themes and such, so they unconsciously also mimic this trope.
Game of Thrones also plays with the good vs evil but switches up the color code with the Kingsguard wearing white and the Night’s Watch wearing black. This posts speaks of the symbolism pertaining to the white cloaks of the Kingsguard.
Attracted to gray characters instead of orcs and angels, Martin regards the hero as the villain on the other side. The Wall’s Night’s Watch, whom Martin described as “criminal scum [who] are also heroes and they wear black”, was a deliberate twist on fantasy stereotypes. Furthermore, the use of black as the identifying colour for the essentially good Night’s Watch and the use of white for the much corrupted Kingsguard is another example of Martin subverting traditional fantasy which tends to link light colours with good and darker ones with evil.From here.
Then there’s Disney that’s notorious for their ingrained racism
This is easily seen in their visuals when portraying villains. When you look at the heroes vs villains, the villains are often portrayed as darker, more “ethnic” (see: Mother Gothel, Jafar) and sometimes queer-coded (like Ratcliff and Dr. Facilier).
Another example: the shadowy,dark huns in Disney’s Mulan. They have greyish, dark skin with strange eye coloring, and they all look the same.
On the left: a hun as portrayed by Disney in Mulan.
Furthermore, Disney typically depicts baddies as “less beautiful” with some exceptions of very beautiful and vain evil ladies (they have a trope with two types of beauty where one is pure and wholesome while the other is vain and egocentric. The second is also usually an older individual).
The Oz film was pretty visual, colorful, and magical until the evil witch and her black monkey minions come and then everything is dark suddenly. Oh, but there’s the “good” monkey, depicted in bright and lighter coloring.
Angels and Demons
Then there’s the trend where angels are always white and demons black/dark in fantasy. This doesn’t have to be and why this is a biased way to depict them, at least from a non-religious point of view, and as far as I know I never found a mention of white wings if wings at all when angels were mentioned. Exceptions go to the angels in higher orders, but still no white mentioned. Fallen angels suddenly have black wings, when they still have them.
The Harms of the Trope
Why is the B/W - Good vs Evil- trope harmful? Well, look at how the colors are associated. Dark as bad, evil. White as good, pure. But then you group a whole people as Dark + “Black” and the other as Light and “White” and you’ve literally set these people in opposition of each other.
There are Black people in the world. There are white people in the world. “Black” as a word is literally viewed as synonymous with darkness and evil. “White” is literally viewed as synonymous with goodness and purity. There’s an intentional pattern here.
Malcolm X’s discussion regarding how Black is used to describe a people adds clarify to this.
Martin Luther King Jr. also discussed the association of Black to Evil and White to Good.
Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made
everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the
synonyms of the word Black. It’s always something degrading and low and
sinister. Look at the word White, it’s always something pure, high and
clean. Well I want to get the language right tonight.
I want to get the language so right that everyone here will cry out:
‘Yes, I’m Black, I’m proud of it. I’m Black and I’m beautiful!
Another notable example of the result of these engraved associations and aversion to Blackness is how racist fans reacted to the Rue character from the Hunger Games being (rightfully) portrayed as a Black girl in the movies.
A lot of these reactions can be found online. Like this one.
The trope is deeply ingrained into people’s minds and reinforced by the media that combined with systematic racism Black people and even Black children cannot be seen as pure and innocent. These traits incorporated in the Black and White Symbolism is enforced on Black people (and white people to some extent). The symbolism has been influenced further with racism and that is why it can be harmful.
What to do with the trope
Now, we don’t believe people should stop using Black and white in relation to people; running away from the word, even given its history, would only reinforce Black as a badge of shame when that’s simply a lie. We think the better solution is to built up a new dictionary. To stop using black to mean all things sinister and evil and white as all things blameless and good.
Black & White in our Writing
While it’d be difficult to deconstruct these associations overnight, it’s definitely not impossible to be more conscious of how one might be perpetuating the B&W trope within their works.
Pay attention to your writing and the color symbolism there.
Where do you find Black & White imagery? How is it being used?
Are you using shadows and night skies to foreshadow bad things to come?
Morning light and white dresses to symbolize purity and hopefulness?
Now even these aren’t inherent pitfalls.
The following are some ways to make sure of that:
Defy the Trope
I was watching the first season of Sleepy Hollow, when there was an episode with a playful little girl running in the forest wearing a white dress. A little Black girl. While I don’t recall if she were meant to symbolize good or evil so neatly, but simply featuring this young child in white, both common emblems of “innocence” felt like a deviation from the typical white or pale girl to play such a part.
Even when using typically good and white symbolism, including Black and brown people to take part in these roles is a better option that shunning them out of such roles and thus the associated symbolism. How many dark-skinned angels do you see in media? How often are characters of color associated with beings that typically represent purity and goodness?
It’s like with heroes and villains. It’s more preferable to have a diverse mix of characters who play positive roles as opposed to making all your Characters of Color villains or antagonists.
Another example of deviating from the trope can be found with George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series as mentioned further up this post.
Subvert the Trope
Suppose Black represented good. Suppose Black represented life, innocence, and good things to come.
Now suppose White symbolized evil. Suppose White represented death, immorality and ominous things on the horizon.
Subverting the B&W trope is another way to handle it in your writing. If your story is one based on a non-western or even fantasy culture, it’d be easier to sell the idea that this is simply a world that doesn’t treat Black as evil but of neutral or good (and here’s how & why). Attempting to pass this off in a more westernized culture might get confusion or skepticism from readers, though.
One idea is to subtly apply the symbolism. Death always or often occurs under bright, white lighting or sky. The dark, black forest protects the character who is being pursued by evil. A Black cat brings hope and good news.
And before you say this is enforcing “reverse racism!” Nah. Just like if you felt like having all white villains, there is no engraved association with whiteness that exists today that could actually reverse society’s overarching association of white to good and black to bad.
Not All Evil
Say you do have some negative imagery in connection to darkness. First, evaluate how heavily you’re enforcing Black as bad and consider if a change would be good.
You could also avoid reinforcing the message of dark as only/always evil if you were to balance out your associations of darkness by also having some positive or neutral connections to darkness.
New B&W Meanings
Black & White don’t have to mean good or evil at all, as in not the case in every society anyhow. There are other associations with the colors you could emphasize in your writing. Take some of these examples below:
Black Associated Meanings:
Avoid strong = Black people tropes
The term “Black magic” is rooted in racism. Read about this as for
alternatives to “Black magic” here.
“I’ve spent my whole life trying so hard not to be vulnerable. The idea is terrifying. Why would you let someone in like that? Why would you give someone every opportunity to hurt you? I never understood it until I was uncomfortable being alone. I never knew what it was like to fall until I met you. I want to share every fear, doubt, anxiety attack, depressive episode and sad memory with you without being expected to or expecting you to do the same. I want my soul to intermingle with yours in a way it’s never known. I want you to get to know me in a way nobody else ever has. I want you to see my darkness. I want to be vulnerable around you. Please don’t hurt me.”
“I am not a writer
my fingers don’t ache to write about loss or love
to be a writer I have to make my life complex
i have to turn from pools in the summer sun
to the dark depths of the ocean
and i have to reach far into places of myself
the places i don’t like
to pull out prose
but instead i open wounds
i end up with a fistful of demons
and they make their way to my lungs
i don’t like who i am
when i try to be a good writer”