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Painting by Arnold Isbister

I was careful for a long time not to wear red and purple together, lest I be taken for a genetic throwback.

When I was in grade seven, growing up during the Civil Rights and AIM (American Indian) movements in the United States, my mom got a new job and moved us to the white suburban community of Glenside, Pennsylvania. Our rented house was located on Pleasant Avenue, and the only friend we had in the neighbourhood was a preteen geek that everyone considered a weirdo named Happy Holiday. No kidding.

Anyway, I remember attending an all white junior high school for a few months until my mom moved us to a mixed neighbourhood where we were bussed to school for integration purposes (but that’s another blog post). One day a year my “progressive-minded” junior high hosted a student exchange with an inner city school. This meant that once a year 10-12 of our students would attend a Philadelphia school while my school hosted 10-12 African American students.

I remember feeling sorry for the Black kids who ended up in my classes. No one but teachers engaged them in conversation, including me, who was afraid of embarrassing myself by not being Black enough.

At the height of imperialism, Europe saw bright colours as a sign of degeneracy and inferiority. The English scorned bright colours and called Indian textiles “rags” or “trash”.

Most teachers ignored the exchange and whatever lessons we were supposed to learn from it. My Humanities teacher was an exception; the next day he asked us what we had learned from the exchange. Everyone shrugged and avoided eye contact. Hoping to break the ice, my teacher piped in first: “I notice that Negroes [the politically correct word of the day] have a different sense of colour than we do. They’re not afraid to wear colours that clash, like red and purple.”

The class then launched into a discussion of how African Americans were too poor and downtrodden to care about fashion. Someone even had a theory that African eyes were somehow genetically deficient and couldn’t see how awful their colour combinations were.

I noted the irony that a program designed to build relationships across cultures had actually kick-started a racist discussion. It’s funny how that discussion has stuck with me over the years. I was careful for a long time not to wear red and purple together, lest I be taken for a genetic throwback. Then I started noticing the beautiful fashions of other cultures: salwar kameez, cheongsam and ao dai from Asia—and of course the richness of African prints. I noted the wondrous colour combinations of pow wows and other cultural events. These boasted many beautiful examples of mixing red and purple, as well as other bright colours. No shame. No apologies. Just a lot of pride.


While I don’t want to generalize about cultures and their feelings about colour, I’ve been making mental notes on the issue for years. On my trips to Dinetah (Navajo territory) I’ve much admired the magnificence of turquoise, coral and other bright colours of traditional jewelry against sun kissed bronze skin.

I once saw a Bollywood film where a family hired a wedding planner with European aesthetics. The father sees the “white wedding” decor and goes ballistic. “This is a wedding, not a funeral. Give me colour!”

The set designer on the film Children of Men reportedly wanted more colour in the film’s impoverished neighbourhoods. “Have you seen the favelas in Brazil, the shantytowns in South Africa?” he reportedly asked. “They’re full of colour.”

“This is England,” he was told and had to tone it way down.

At the height of imperialism, Europe saw bright colours as a sign of degeneracy and inferiority. The English scorned bright colours and called Indian textiles “rags” or “trash”.

PrismAt the same time, Christmas, Easter and possibly other holidays seem to be times when Euro-centric cultures have permission to bust out in colour. Curious to why that is I accidentally stumbled upon some articles that discussed the issue.

Artist and writer David Batchelor argues that “in the West, since Antiquity, colour has been systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished, and degraded.” According to some art critics, anthropologists and historians European attitudes to colour are bound up in a colonial past and fears of the unknown. “Chromophobia” is a term for fear of colour where mainstream society sees white as signalling rational, clean, controlled spaces while colour is viewed as dangerous, superficial and potentially contaminating. At the same time, if you want a walk on the wild, erotic side, colour promises voracious, primordial sex with “exotic” brown-skinned beauties.

Maybe I’m oversensitive to the issue but for me the use of colour has become a form of resistance and defiance. The chromophobia theory will undoubtedly get debated in academia along with others. In the meantime, I’m proudly wearing bright colours that lift my soul and celebrate my thriving spirit. What about you?

Colour, Chromophobia and Colonialism: Some Historical Thoughts by Carolyn Purnell

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About The Author

Zainab Amadahy

Zainab Amadahy is of mixed race background that includes African American, Cherokee, Seminole, Portuguese, Amish, Pacific Islander and other trace elements (if DNA testing is accurate). She is an author of screenplays, nonfiction and futurist fiction, the most notable being the adequately written yet somehow cult classic “Moons of Palmares”. Based in peri-apocalyptic Toronto, Zainab is the mother of 3 grown sons and a cat who allows her to sit on one section of the couch. For more on Zainab and free access to some of her writings check out her website.

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