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Dark/black and light/white have symbolic meanings(1, 2). Dark/black represents, among others: Grief, evil, mystery (often with hidden threats), lack of knowledge, etc. Light/white represtents, among others: Purity, sincerity, good, happiness, knowledge, etc.

It is argued that this symbolism is not inherent to these colors and is an example of racism.

However, to my intuition, this symbolism is likely innate in humans and has little to do with skin color. My arguments are:

  • Humans are diurnal rather than nocturnal. Day is the time when humans are active, night is the time when they withdraw to their shelters. And it happens that day is light while night is dark. As such, darkness evokes negative feelings in humans (which urge one to withdraw) while lightness evokes positive emotions (which invite one to embrace whatever evokes them).
  • Humans' main sense is sight, but humans' eyes are not well adapted for darkness. Hence, in darkness humans are cut from their main source of knowledge about heir surroundings. From this it follows that darkness represents lack of knowledge while lightness represents knowledge.
    • This also means that in darkness humans have trouble to see an impending danger. The phrase 'hiding in shadows' has a very literal meaning, since shadows used to be (and sometimes perhaps still are) among the good places for assassins to hide.
    • Historically, nighttime used to be a very dangerous period, best spent in hiding. A person who overstayed in a forest was at risk of being assaulted and eaten by a nocturnal predator. Nighttime was also the favorite time of brigands and outlaws to pillage villages.
    • THerefore it seems all but obvious that darkness represents hidden danger.
  • From the above also easily follows why does darkness represent evil and lies, while lightness represents good and sincerity.
  • That light is biologically needed by humans seem to be confirmed by the fact that at least in some individuals, seasonal deprivation of light leads to a major depressive disorder and the therapy is to expose affected people to light.
    • It therefore seems that the reasons why darkness represents grief and sorrow while light represents joy and happiness are biological and innate rather than cultural.
    • These scientific expereriments and their horrifying effects also seem to hint that the reason of the symbolism behind light and dark (and hence: white and black) are biological and innate.

Nonetheless, all I wrote above are just my intuitions and I do not have expertise in the relevant fields of study.

Therefore, may I ask if there are (neuro)biological reasons behind this symbolism or is this a purely cultural thing?

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  • $\begingroup$ I think you answered part of your question with your reference to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), that is, your comments on seasonal deprivation of light. $\endgroup$ – tale852150 Jun 13 at 3:53
  • $\begingroup$ Racism in children: psychology.stackexchange.com/questions/23357/… $\endgroup$ – rolfedh Jun 14 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ Racism in The Lion King: fastcompany.com/90379067/… $\endgroup$ – rolfedh Jun 14 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ @rolfedh This question is not about if the symbolism is racist. The other question was, not this one. This one is about if it is innate. $\endgroup$ – gaazkam Jun 14 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ I think you've raised an interesting question. I agree that color symbolism is based on our interactions with our natural environments. However, cross-cultural studies show that the specific meanings attributed to colors vary by culture and are therefore not universal or innate (e.g., the association of white with death in China and ancient Egypt). Unfortunately, color symbolism in Western cultures is tainted by our colonial and racist past. Acknowledging the influence of biology on color symbolism does not negate its historical associations. (I'll get off my soapbox now) $\endgroup$ – rolfedh Jun 14 at 21:13

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