Śūnyatā. Not this, not that. It is the nothingness from which all life emanated.

Nothingness. Is there such a word in the English language?

Unfortunately not. We have words, but we don’t understand their true meaning.

Śūnyatā. Not this, not that.

We just call ‘it’ black instead.

Crows are marvellously intelligent creatures. They are capable not only of tool use, but also tool construction. Scientists now consider crows to be among the world’s most intelligent animals with an encephalisation quotient equal to many primates.

But how do we choose to view crows? As ominous creatures who sweep through the night (even though we’ve all seen them in broad daylight) as well as birds that are the harbingers of death, doom and decay. Does it have something to do with the fact that the crow is black?

Of course, it does! We don’t say such things about parrots now, do we?

The practice of assigning negative connotations to anything black has a long history. The ‘sombre’ colour has been tied to death and evil across many time periods and cultures. And with the stories of ghosts, bandits and criminals loitering around in pitch darkness, black has become the stereotypical colour assigned to villains. Throughout history, black has served as a metaphor for darkness and vice.

In many ancient cultures, black is associated with evil. In Greek mythology, we have Hades: the God of the Underworld who sits on ebony throne. In Roman poetry, we link Death with hora nigra the black hour. From Nordic Legends to European art, we paint ‘Devils’ in black.

The colour has never met a warm welcome.

Even in art, dark colours are used to paint an ominous mood, reflect a depressed state of mind or foreshadow a tragic event. Be it in painting, photography or poetry, black is the colour that is used to evoke strong negative emotions—terror, aggression, fear or even sorrow.

The association of black with negativity bleeds into our language and seeps into our common expressions—Black Money, Black Magic, Black Market, Black Sheep, Blackmail, Blackhole, Blackout—and the list goes on…

The worst effect of this mental association is that it biases us against people whom we label and categorise as ‘black’ or ‘dark’.

The truly disheartening part of all of it is that the stereotype has stuck despite no actual factual basis. We associate ‘darkness’ with dirt, with terror and with everything we should ‘clean’.

In the first half of the twentieth century, right up until the 1960s, the Australian government pursued assimilation policies aimed at creating a single and uniform white Australian culture. The policy, which was founded in 1937, assumed that whites were superior to blacks and sought “to do everything possible to convert the half-caste into a white citizen.”

Assimilation policies focused primarily on children: who were considered more adaptable than adults. Consequently, one of the main features of this policy was the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families. Now known as the Stolen Generations, “Half-caste” children were particularly vulnerable to removal, as it was thought that they could be more easily assimilated into the white community because of their ‘fairer’ skin colour.

In this situation, who is ‘fair’ and who is ‘dark’?

Historical chapters such as these create within entire countries and cultures ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’. It has a profound impact on the psyche of a people and the story they tell of their genesis, their development and their destination.

In this situation, who is ‘fair’ and who is ‘dark’?

If we can’t count on the ‘fair’ to be ‘fair’, then how can we associate ‘fair’ with all that is good about the world?

It’s in the ‘darkness’ of people’s hearts that they create traumatic experiences. It’s in ‘darkness’ that evil minds set to work. It’s in ‘darkness’ that people get lost and lose their way. It’s in ‘darkness’ that people cannot see the mysterious forces within them that compel them to destroy whole communities in the name of ‘light’.

Imagine living in a world where people assume that you are automatically inferior based on something you have no ability to change. What would it then feel like to be encouraged to be like the majority culture around you, but then be denied the rights and opportunities to do so?

We choose to use these literary devices even though we know that sunlight does not equate to an absence of evil in our world. These policies happened in broad daylight and not in the darkness of night.

Have we thought of what the world would look like if ‘darkness’, with all its metaphorical connotations did not exist?

Would the world actually be a ‘better’ place?

So many of us turn into racists without even knowing it. We inherit this legacy of racism from our forebears. And unwittingly and unknowingly, we pass it down to our children and our children’s children.

We think we’re telling the ‘truth’ or just sharing our opinions; but the reality is, there is no factual basis to any of our prejudices. It is all either hearsay, personal experiences or biases that we have knowingly or unknowingly inherited.

If you ask me, the real problem is that we don’t even try to explore the concept of ‘darkness’.

Fuelled by our fear, we don’t investigate to see if there is actually something to be afraid of. We don’t make the effort to find out if our fears are justified. In narratives regarding racism, the media focuses on the victims of racism as helpless and wounded ‘losers’ of a society that need ‘help’ and yet are systematically diminished and reduced.

What we, as humans, fail to acknowledge time and time again is that the perpetrators of racism are the real losers.

In diminishing the importance and sanctity of diversity, we miss out on the multicoloured experiences that can enrich us. In our quest to eradicate fear, we fail to account for the fact that the world is and has always been a diverse place with a multitude of cultures and peoples. In insisting on racial superiority, we set ourselves up for a life where hatred and bigotry sear through our hearts and burn our souls.

We let fear steer the wheel of our existence; all the while, we ignore the facts and choose to believe misguided stories as realities and hearsay as truths.

We fail to deal with the Devil that we–and we alone–have created and nurtured in our minds and in our communities. And over time, we allow fear to scare us and others into domination and submission. 

Soon, our subconscious mind associates the fear of the unknown with the fear of darkness. We feel threatened by its presence even when it hasn’t done anything. We are afraid that we might be harmed. We are on heightened alert for no reason at all.

We tend to strike first before they can strike us. What we fail to realise us is that in striking another, we have only damaged and injured ourselves and our societies in the process.

Our failure to make peace with the metaphors–and not the reality–of darkness is what underlines our pervasive fear of black as a concept. And we end up treating anything black with cruelty, all the while, we convince ourselves that we are justified in our actions.

Our children will be forced to pay the price.

Racism’s Real Culprit

Several researchers have found that racism is actually a neurological and psychological process. It arises out of our prejudice against the colour black and its corresponding fear of darkness. And even when the prejudice is buried deep in our subconscious, it drives our conscious actions like a car driver on autopilot, taking a familiar route because it’s the only one he knows.

We begin to connect that darkness with something sinister. Darkness imbues in us the fear of the unknown. We fear what we cannot see. We can’t see in the dark and hence we face the horror of not knowing where we are. It brings in a sense of feeling directionless.

Studies show that while our implicit bias of associating black with negativity can occur outside of our conscious awareness, it affects our explicit behaviours in our treatment of peoples whom we perceive to be ‘dark-skinned’. Hence there are arguably countless instances where people who are perceived as ‘black’ are treated with cruelty.

The media is clogged with incidences where police departments use force against black suspects, where teachers punish black students more harshly or where companies display (or downplay) racial biases during hiring.

In all of these cases, it’s the subconscious prejudice that drives our conscious behaviour. Or perhaps, it’s the subconscious fear of darkness that gets associated with racism. There are numerous episodes of history where fear drove people to act with brutality against dark-skinned people.

Whatever the case may be, the real culprit behind racism is the metaphor of black and darkness. It doesn’t matter if the person using the metaphor didn’t mean it to bleed into the realm of skin colour. For somewhere at the back of the mind, the connotation has taken over.

If we continue associating darkness with fear and black with evil, this metaphor is sure to sink deep into our subconscious mind and morph us into plain racists without us even realising it.

And that’s definitely not a world we would like to see. We may not like to see it on our doorstep; but the moment we step foot outside, we all know, somewhere deep down, that that is the world we live in.

Was Black Always An Outcast?

The answer is a hard NO.

There is ample evidence from history where black wasn’t treated as an outcast. While the ancient Greeks and Romans chose to associate black with death and evil; for the ancient Egyptians, black was the colour of rich, alluvial soil; symbolising fertility, growth and life.

The colour black is associated with the Egyptian God of Afterlife, Anubis. But it’s not an ‘evil’ depiction. Anubis was never a villain but a deity who protected the dead against evil. For the ancient Egyptians, black was not a symbol for death and darkness, but a powerful totemic symbol of resurrection.

Furthermore, even the ancient Chinese begged to differ from the ones who chose to associate death and mourning with black. In China, the colour of death is white. Plus, in Feng Shui, black is associated with the water element; evoking power, mystery and calm. Black is also believed to have a grounding effect on our environment.

In Hinduism, two of the most powerful energies—Lord Krishna and Maa Kali—are depicted as black. The God of love, kindness and compassion–Lord Krishna–is also the Saviour of the World. And Maa Kali, the Goddess of Time and Power, is also the symbol of motherly love. Both are depicted as the ones who purge the world of all evils.

Even in the fashion world, both modern and ancient, black is considered regal and elegant. It probably began with the Duke of Milan in Italy and continued to the court of Richard II where the royalties adopted black as the shade to show their elegance and power. Even in the modern times, black is often seen as the colour of sophistication when people drape themselves in elegant black at fancy events.

And even with all that said and done, one thing that remains to be said is that—without the existence of black, we won’t even be able to read this article printed in black ink!

Image Credit: Sanchari Das

The Deep-Seated Human Tendency

Even after all the positive connotations of black, the issue of the colour being the source of prejudice and fear still remains.

Several researchers show that people have a tendency to perceive a ‘dark-skinned’ person to have committed severe crimes. People usually tend to associate dark skin with negative personality traits. And the reverse is just as true. When people hear about an evil act, they have a tendency to believe that it was done by someone with a darker skin tone.

A visual representation of such an association would be in movies where the villains are usually portrayed as dark-skinned people, wearing black clothes and operating at night. This effect feeds upon the deep-seated human tendency to associate darkness with wickedness.

A far-reaching consequence of this psychological link has a serious implication for the judiciary system when a witness might falsely identify suspects with darker skin tone as the criminal. Thus, using black and dark as metaphors for evil can have a profound ramification with no basis in reality.

If we still continue to associate black with negativity, it will eventually reflect upon our treatment of dark-skinned people. It would provoke us to support and maintain racism, even if it’s subconscious.  

Taming the Conscious

We cannot control the subconscious. But what we can control is our conscious behaviour.

And the solution lies just there.

We need to treat this problem at its core—at the root of the metaphor that began it all. We need to find new words to describe death, evil and negative emotions.

It’s not as hard as it sounds. We just need to set our rich and powerful imagination to work.

Instead of saying “dark times”, we can use “difficult times” or “challenging times”. We can change phrases like “going dark” to “dropping out of touch” or “going to the dark side” to “turning to the evil”. And we can simply replace the “Black” in “Black Money” or “Black Market” with its real connotation like illegal or corrupted.

As for the prejudices that we already carry in our minds, psychology says that they are changeable if we are ready to put in effort. Research shows that our implicit biases change as we consciously learn new behaviours that ultimately become our second nature.

So, to kill our prejudice against black, we just need to consciously commit ourselves to change.

We can start by practicing egalitarianism as a skill. The process is similar to learning a new skill like driving a car or playing a musical instrument. And then, once we practice it regularly, it becomes like a skill which when learned over a long period of time eventually becomes our new autopilot.

Actively seeking friendship from different cultural groups is the best way to get started. It familiarises us with different people, expands our point of view and increases our social tolerance. It’s a great way to make peace with people whose opinions and choices differ from us.

But we shouldn’t in any way let this practise lead us to ignore our differences. Practising egalitarianism isn’t about ignoring, diminishing or downplaying our differences. It’s about acknowledging our differences and accepting it. It’s about learning to live and let live.

For when we ignore the fact that a person is black, we are actually ignoring his or her identity. Plus, pretending not to notice the difference is another kind of prejudice. It shows that we actually dislike ‘dark-skinned people’ and so we are pretending to ignore that they are dark!

If we look at it this way—when we don’t pretend to ignore that a person is ‘fair’, then why ignore when they are ‘dark’? I mean, there is nothing wrong with it. It’s simply a fact. And we need to notice it but never make an issue out of it. As mentioned earlier, the word ‘fair’ has many positive connotations, so what if we could do the same for ‘dark’?

Another great aspect of practising egalitarianism is to speak up against unambiguous prejudices. It’s very important for us to stand strong against such biases. It not only supports the targets of such prejudices but also reinforces the standard for ourselves.

It’s strange how we are not afraid to say racist things but we are afraid to stand up to prejudice. Actually, our clash with black is so deeply ingrained within us that sometimes we don’t even realise we are being racist. People are just comfortable saying all the wrongs things to dark-skinned people. The tradition has been around for such a long time that we no longer realise how terrible it is.

We don’t even realise that it hurts someone’s feelings. We don’t even realise that even the ones who have fought hard to overcome racism are still hurt by it.

We are afraid to come out of our shell and protest against something that has a long history of existing in our society. The conflict arises when we personally encounter the damage that racism causes and our own conscience rebels against us and asks us to do the opposite—stand up against racism. We cower, as that’s something which requires us to step out of our comfort zone. 

But still, we need to take that conscious effort. We need to muster our courage and stand up for what we believe; and for what we want to believe. 

When we speak up for something we believe in, we not only influence the people around us, but also strengthen the belief within us. So, if we want to believe in equality, we need to start speaking out against prejudices.

Only then will we be able to create a change.

It might be a little challenging to find alternatives for words or to keep our prejudices in check. But the shift is important.

It is important to negate the harmful connotation that has been building up at the back our minds. It is important to change the mindset that some of us have been harnessing since time immemorial.

And, in the wake of the call to equality, it is high time that we start taking these small steps without waiting for the world to change.

There is no denying that it demands a huge effort. But if the shift yields into us having an anti-racist mindset in a world that’s more inclusive and loving—won’t it all be worth the effort?

Śūnyatā. Not this, not that. It is the nothingness from which all life emanated.

Nothingness. Is there such a word in the English language?

Unfortunately not. We have words, but we don’t understand their true meaning.

Śūnyatā. Not this, not that.

It is not light. It is not nothing. It is everything and nothing. It is the nothingness.

It is black.

This post was jointly authored by the Sanatanco Group.

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