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Is Saying “Dark” to Mean “Bad” an Offensive, Racist Metaphor?

The wonderful children’s book Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison ends with the realization that darkness — both in the sky and in skin color — is beautiful and necessary. Yet, so many of us persist in using the term “dark” or “darkness” as a metaphor for “bad things,” “evil” — or anything negative.

This is problematic, and has profound ramifications. It’s time to reexamine our use of the metaphor “darkness,” and to shift away from it. Here’s why.

Is it offensive to use the metaphor "dark" to mean "bad"?
What do you think?

Why Stop the “Darkness” Metaphor?

#1: It Perpetuates Racism

Most obviously, if our society is constantly associating darkness with bad things, this spills into our treatment of actual humans with darker skin. In other words, our use of the “darkness” metaphor to connote sad or difficult things supports racism.

An Example to Show Why It’s Offensive

Seem far-fetched? Let’s examine an example. Say a character in a book is described as having “dark moods.” Readers know that this phrase translates to “bad moods.” In this case, “dark” = “bad.”

Next, say a different character is described as having “dark skin.” What’s the logical translation of that second description, given the first? You’ve got it — whether we mean for this to happen or not (and most do not), the mathematical translation would be “bad skin.” Nope! This isn’t something we want to perpetuate!

No matter how much someone who uses the metaphor might insist that they didn’t mean for it to bleed into the realm of skin color, it does. Even as we try to shut off the association, the connotation lingers in the air. It impacts our thinking and feeling, and causes hurt.

#2: It’s Not an Accurate Metaphor

Another problem with the metaphor of “darkness” to describe negative things is that it’s simply not true with regard to the literal natural world and our interactions with it. In fact, literal darkness is undeniably useful and beautiful!

Would you like to live in a world where night did not exist, and it was bright light day outside 24-7? Of course not! Whole movies have been made about people going insane while living in an Arctic region where the sun never sets. Too much sun is not a good thing.

Think about all the wonderful parts of literal darkness. Darkness is calming and restful. It helps us see the stars. It allows nocturnal animals to live, and the rest of us to sleep. It dissipates the heat. It helps us appreciate the day (just as the day helps us appreciate the night). It provides a cloak of delicious secrecy where we can embrace and explore. Darkness is awesome!

Landscape photo of Hillsdale, NY
This landscape photo is beautiful because of its mix of light and dark. Without the deep green trees and cloud shadows, it would look washed out!

So Where Is This Metaphor From?

Some Say: “Dark Colors Are Just Sad.”

In art — from painting, to photography, to film — dark colors are often associated with sad or ominous feelings. For example, a scene with gray clouds is likely meant to reflect a depressed mood, or foreshadow a tragic event. Therefore, one might argue, “Seeing dark colors just produces sad feelings, so it’s accurate to use the term ‘darkness’ to describe sadness.”

The problem with this argument is that it is not true. Sure, a painting with gray storm clouds will likely feel sad, but what about a gorgeous mural of a black night sky sparkling with stars and dotted with fairies? A visually dark-colored piece of art can absolutely still be happy and uplifting! Dark colors do not naturally cause sadness in humans. There’s another reason people use the metaphor…

“Darkness” Is Associated With FEAR

Though we’ve seen from the previous examples that literal darkness is often wonderful and useful, there’s no doubt that throughout history, the absence of light has also been associated with terror.

It was during night that bandits could sneak in and attack villages. It is under dark’s cloak that some of the worst crimes are committed. It is in pitch black rooms that children cry out for the comfort of night lights. It is in the absence of literal light that people can get lost, or feel the horror of not knowing where they are. It is undeniable that darkness can be scary in our lives.

So why should we stop using this metaphor? Because this fear of darkness has also historically been associated with race — to disastrously harmful effect. Over and over we see brutality against people with darker skin justified by the “fear” people — usually with lighter skin — have said they felt which caused them to use excessive force. Overwhelmingly, this fear is not founded in reality.

The more we continue to associate literal darkness with fear (“dark = evil”), the more that fear can seep into our real-life human interactions. It will behoove us all to find other words besides the metaphor of “darkness” to describe things that cause us fear or bad feelings. (See these beautiful Black and Latina dolls to show one way to teach kids, starting young, that dark things aren’t scary!)

It’s in Religious Texts that “Pre-Date Race”

One argument for why to keep using the “darkness” metaphor to mean bad (and “light” metaphor to mean good) is that it is pervasive in religious texts such as the Bible which were written long before the modern construct of race.

By this logic, some assert we should continue to use these phrases in our modern speech and writing because they are historic and have “nothing to do with modern race,” thus meaning they are “not offensive.”

The problem with this argument, however, is that just because something was created in an older context, it doesn’t mean that it can’t still cause harm today. If we realize that speech or thought habits with historic roots are problematic, we have the power to revise it in our modern day if it will lead to a more respectful and loving world.

To be clear, I am NOT advocating for literally revising historic texts. Rather, I’m explaining that it is vital to openly discuss the modern impacts of these metaphors, and to consider revising our current-day use of them in NEW speech and writing. But how? Read on…

Darkness is beautiful and necessary
We love the dark!

So What’s The Solution?

It can be frustrating when a term which we are used to using is suddenly problematized, and we are challenged to alter it. Never fear, however — there are many solutions! Here are several ideas.

Phrases That Can Replace “Dark”

Instead of saying “dark times” as a metaphor to mean “negative times” try: “difficult times,” “sad times,” or “challenging times.” If you want to be more poetic, try: “fiery times,” “times that cut like a knife,” or “times that bleed our souls dry.”

“Going to the Dark Side” and “Going Dark”

Instead of using the commonly-repeated (and problematic) phrase “going to the dark side,” or “tempted by darkness,” replace “dark” with “evil.” Instead of saying “Going dark,” just say its meaning, which is “going completely out of communication” or “totally dropping out of touch or contact.”

Once you start replacing “dark” or “darkness,” doesn’t it become clear how important this change is due to its harmful connotation, and how possible it is to shift the dialogue? The options for replacement phrases are only as limited as our imagination — and the human imagination is rich and powerful!

What Are We Teaching?

If you’re still on the fence about replacing this metaphor, imagine this: You are a young girl with beautiful dark brown skin. You’re sitting in a first grade class, and the teacher is reading a book that describes how it was a “dark time” in a village.

“Does that mean there was no sun?” you ask, “because I see the sun in the picture, so it doesn’t make sense to me that it’s called ‘a dark time.'”

“No, no,” replies the teacher. “‘Dark time’ in this context is a metaphor that means a bad time.”

“Oh,” you reply, “so dark is bad?” You look around and notice your skin is darker than the children sitting next to you. “Does that mean that my skin color is bad?”

“Of course not!” replies the teacher with a reassuring laugh. “‘Dark’ sometimes means bad, but it doesn’t mean your skin is bad! Your skin is gorgeous!”

“So why does the book use the word ‘dark’ to mean ‘bad?’ How do we know when dark is bad and when it’s good?”

Just think about that scene and how you’d feel as that little girl. Wouldn’t it have been more human if the teacher had launched the book by proactively explaining the following?

“In the past, people used the term ‘dark’ to mean ‘bad,’ but we don’t do that anymore. Now we realize the beauty and importance of darkness.”

Walking on bike path with dark shadows and bright light.
Dark shadows work perfectly with the light to create this scene’s loveliness.

Stopping “Darkness”

Yes, it takes a little effort and brainpower to shift ingrained patterns of speech, but if those shifts can help benefit our fellow humans — and help make our world a more inclusive, anti-racist, loving place — wouldn’t it all be worth the effort?

What’s YOUR Take on the “Dark” Metaphor?

What about you? What has your experience been with the use of the metaphor “darkness” and its connotations, and do you think it’s time for us to shift it? Do share!

 

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Carol Small

Saturday 22nd of May 2021

I came to this article having read that The Globe is to revise Shakespeare (sic) to deal with his “problematic” use of light and dark. To be honest, that people feel able to revise the finest writer in the English language made my blood boil. Light and dark are associated respectively with life and death in every language I know. I live in Greece, in which σκοτεινός (dark) and σκοτείνω (I kill) have the same root. When you think of dying, what colour do you imagine?

Surely the way to go is to educate people as to why this universal association exists?

Lillie Marshall

Tuesday 25th of May 2021

Thank you for adding this linguistic and literary perspective! I'm curious how the Globe plans to revise Shakespeare!

John Halley

Saturday 15th of May 2021

Yes, absolutely the practice of using “dark” interchangeably with “evil”, etc. should be put in the rear view mirror. It causes effects in the subconscious as well as the conscious level so the mind automatically places a template of unfair association onto people based on skin tone. Time to discard this harmful practice.

Lillie Marshall

Sunday 16th of May 2021

Thank you for taking the time to leave this comment, John! Amen to the subconscious (and conscious) effects of the association.

Jon

Friday 7th of May 2021

I agree with your points here, however, time is needed and a lot of it. Shifting away from a engrained descriptive metaphor never intended to describe skin colour nor meant to equate to a human skin colour will take time. As those who use the metaphor are not aware of the modern radicalization of “dark vs light”. Patience and time to raise awareness and for deeper understanding will be important. I have learned publicly correcting those who use the darkness terms are only just now realizing the connection to race, as intention and/or ignorance to the deeper meaning isn’t there yet. Finding out what they thought was a harmless way of describing good vs bad is racially charged when not intended creates guilt, fear, and defensive reactions. I have heard people say they feel silenced and embarrassed, because they did not know. Changing a language’s vocabulary, meaning/definitions, and descriptive intent is changing a culture, and that is no easy feat. It will take time and patience to witness terms/metaphors like “the dark side” to be removed forever from the English language. And in 100 or more years what we use instead today will have different meanings tomorrow. It is an evolving phenomenon and one that will continue well into the future. So my hope is BIPOC and allies will be patience as society catches up. Kind and open dialogue to support change is important for lasting authentic change.

Lillie Marshall

Friday 7th of May 2021

Jon, thank you for taking the time to leave this comment, and I agree wholeheartedly. Well said that this shift will take time, compassion, and kindness. It's deeply ingrained!

G. Must

Friday 12th of February 2021

I researched for a while, using other search terms, before finding your article. My search terms (using google) that led to your piece were: "In writing, using the word "dark" to describe negative things, is this offensive to some?" Your page popped up - but it was the only "on the subject" result I could find. So odd there were NO other articles to appear on the subject. It seems clear we should at least be discussing this & being more judicious about throwing out "dark, dark, dark" so often in these fiery times! So... thank you for posting this!!

Lillie Marshall

Friday 12th of February 2021

WOW! Thanks so much for sharing this! I do hope this discussion becomes more widely had, so feel free to share the link to this article far and wide, and I'm glad you found this.

Ray

Monday 7th of December 2020

While I understand and appreciate the sentiment of your article, I firmly disagree. The light-dark metaphor is not about skin color, though we have a tendency today to see everything through that lens. The metaphor is practically universal, including in cultures of people of color. The metaphor relates to day and night and the psychology of that dichotomy in practically every human culture.

Lillie Marshall

Monday 7th of December 2020

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ray! Most people would agree with you. I'm curious if you have time to elaborate: What search words brought you to this article? I've been seeing an increasing amount of traffic to this post and am very intrigued what visitors are seeking. Thanks again for stopping by and for sharing your thoughts!

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