Color is differentiation, not difference

Gebriel Alazar Tesfatsion
4 min readJun 24, 2020


Imagine this. You are just a naked, flayed string of muscles without your skin; that skin is just cloth you wear over your muscles. Imagine too that hanging in your wardrobe, clean and pressed, are your only five attires: black, brown, yellow, red, and white skins. I wonder what your what-to-wear-when guide would be. Which skin would you wear, say, to a wedding or baptism? Which to a holiday parties? Funeral? Would you wear black skin as often as you like to wear black suit? Or are you one of those who have too much prejudice in their blood and vow that you would never wear black skin even as your pajamas?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Skin is but cloth, a biological cloth. Except it is our only cloth on earth (we do not come with a change), our only uniform of existence. We do not get to take it off – not even to wash it; we only wash it when we take shower with the clothes on like an inhibited adolescent taking shower in public. We take it off when we ultimately leave existence.

Our uniform of existence comes in different shades of colors. Just like every thing else in nature: the birds in the sky, animals roaming upon the earth, fishes in water, the flowers in the wilderness, the cells in our body. Variety of colors is the expression of the joy of nature. We are part of that nature. In our natural tendency, responding to our natural desire, we dye the cotton fabric and clothe ourselves in different colors.

Yet, color is not just biology to us as it is to everything else in nature. It is also culture, a biological culture, culture embedded in our genes. The pigmentation is the cultural dimension of the biology, the skin. In this regard, it is like the different traditional clothes of people of different culture; as kimono is to Japanese people and Shúkà is to Maasai people, skin color is to the races of the world. However, our biological cultural clothes is charged. While one would be happy to try on, say, the Shúkà of the Maasai people in the spirit of adventure, putting on a black skin is not so much fun. A dark skin is too heavy to put on because there is so much stigma attached to it.

But where does this stigma come from?

The whole issue of racism is deeply embedded in language, in the way we make meaning. There are two levels to meaning making of an object. There is the denotation level where the object is ‘identified’ from the other of its kind. We search for the defining physical trait that differentiates it and that trait, often external features such as size, shape and colors, leaps to the forefront of our mind, eclipsing the innumerable traits of commonalities that the object shares with others of its kind. Hence, the object is reduced to the trait: a person becomes white or black and not ‘a soul in white or black skin’. We perceive through the system of our language not the wholeness of the object but its difference from the rest of its kind. This, I surmise, is a repercussion of the curse we inherited from our progenitors when they ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, for this is what we got for desiring conscious knowledge over unconscious bliss.

The other level is the connotation of the defining trait. Our mental makeup is such that we are incapable of seeing a stimuli for what it is: a differentiation, not a difference. Instead, our accumulative attitudes and prejudices are reflected upon the physical trait. Connotation is intrinsic to human mind; we are connotative beings. We connote meaning onto everything we perceive. Racism is but the connotation of skin color; a hierarchical value judgement upon humanity based on the color of their skin.

Look no further than the senses given under each sense to see the biased connotation of the colors in the dictionary of English language. The Cambridge English Dictionary lists the following senses under the entry ‘black’:

  1. Without hope.

. The future looked black.

2. Bad or evil.

. a black-hearted villain.

Similarly, the color black has negative connotation in idioms as well. An example is the idiom ‘paint a black picture of sth/ab’: its meaning is ‘to describe a situation or person as extremely bad’.

Hence, there are two core problems with racism (as with everything else in the perception of humanity): the reduction of people to their skin color and prejudicial connotation of the color. People cannot change the first problem, i.e. the way we perceive, but they sure can change the second. It starts by believing that you are more than the pigment that your melanocytes secrete. The next step to rewrite the connotation of your skin color. The way to rewrite the connotation is not by venting out your anger at, fighting against, kicking at the world for its negative connotation, nor is it by burning down civilization. In the immortal words of Carl Jung, that “what you resist not only persists, but will grow in size”. Look about you and behold great men and women already silently rewriting the connotation. Usain Bolt. Barack Obama. Maya Angelou. Let not the remnant smoldering of mental illness that ripples every once in a while work you up to passion, for in so doing, you are only fanning the dying flame to raging fire.



Gebriel Alazar Tesfatsion

I envy the eloquence of silence.