Dark and Light: Practicing Balance—and Countering Racism—in Metaphors

Two collections of speech bubbles, sharing negative synonyms and phrases related to darkness and positive ones related to lightness
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Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and the longest night in the Northern Hemisphere. In Inuvik, a town in the Northwest Territories of Canada, tilted by the Earth’s axis as far from the sun as possible, there is no daylight at all today.

This is a day of deep spiritual significance in many traditions, and particularly after a year that has brought so much suffering and loss, there will be millions of people reflecting today on the symbolism of the darkest night and the coming of the light.

Metaphors have deep power, and the widespread metaphor that darkness/blackness is bad, evil, or otherwise negative, while lightness/whiteness is good, pure, or otherwise positive, has inestimable effects. The metaphors we use feed implicit biases. Many different studies have shown that associating darkness with negativity translates into associating darker-skinned people with criminality. Today I am holding in my heart the words of Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson, a beloved Unitarian Universalist leader. HOPE, as she styled her name, had respiratory problems ever since serving as a first responder and chaplain on 9/11, and passed away suddenly last month, only weeks after sharing these words:

I’ve been thinking a lot about how tired I am of hearing words that include black, dark, and more, used in a negative way even as we proclaim that Black Lives Matter. … Let’s look at the word “dark.” Meaning: dark. Synonyms: dark, night, dusk, gloom, dimness, shadows, shade. As I reflect on the negative definitions of darkness I am struck by how easy it is to internalize them in many different ways.

HOPE went on to share the words of fellow Black Unitarian Universalist leader and author Jacqui James—“Dark and Light, Light and Dark,” from the volume Been in the Storm So Long:

Blackmail, blacklist, black mark. Black Monday, black mood, black-hearted. Black plague, black mass, black market.

Good guys wear white, bad guys wear black. We fear black cats, and the Dark Continent. But it’s okay to tell a white lie, lily-white hands are coveted, it’s great to be pure as the driven snow. Angels and brides wear white. Devil’s food cake is chocolate; angel’s food cake is white!

We shape language and we are shaped by it. In our culture, white is esteemed. It is heavenly, sunlike, clean, pure, immaculate, innocent, and beautiful. At the same time, black is evil, wicked, gloomy, depressing, angry, sullen. Ascribing negative and positive values to black and white enhances the institutionalization of this culture’s racism.

Let us acknowledge the negative connotations of whiteness. White things can be soft, vulnerable, pallid, and ashen. Light can be [burning], bleaching, enervating. Conversely, we must acknowledge that darkness has a redemptive character, that in darkness there is power and beauty. The dark nurtured and protected us before our birth.

Welcome darkness. Don’t be afraid of it or deny it. Darkness brings relief from the [burning] sun, from scorching heat, from exhausting labor. Night signals permission to rest, to be with our loved ones, to conceive new life, to search our hearts, to remember our dreams. The dark of winter is a time of hibernation. Seeds grow in the dark, fertile earth.

The words black and dark don’t need to be destroyed or ignored, only balanced and reclaimed in their wholeness. The words white and light don’t need to be destroyed or ignored, only balanced and reclaimed in their wholeness. Imagine a world that had only light—or dark. We need both. Dark and light. Light and dark.

HOPE ended her reflection with an invitation to readers to find a better balance in the use of dark and light as metaphors:

Friends, I’m not trying to get the world to change its vocabulary. The words “light” and “dark” and typical use of them have been around “forever.” We can’t change that now, but we can always try to improve our use of this language. … I am mindful of those times when the use of the word “dark” is negatively impacting those of us who are Black and Brown. I need you to be mindful of those times too. I also am aware of when the use of the word “light” is also negatively impacting those of us who are Black and Brown. I need you to be more mindful of those times too. We say we want to de-center whiteness. Let us incorporate that in our work now.

We have the blessing of being in a Sankofa moment. Sankofa is the West African bird whose body is facing forward though its head is looking back. It is at once a symbol of being planted in the present, taking the time to look back to the past to better understand where we come from, so that we can better plan for a collective positive future. Let us take time in this Sankofa moment to pay attention to the words we chose to use. Let us be thoughtful in what we chose to share—and make the time to say why when we need to set a context.

I challenge myself and others to become more conscious than ever of my use of the words “dark” and “light.” I promise to find a better balance. Will you join me?

Although “dark” and “light” are concepts that have been imbued with meaning since before written history, the word “black” originally meant the absence of color, and it wasn’t until the late sixteenth century that the word began being used figuratively in a negative way. Tellingly, this coincides with the beginnings of British colonization in Africa. The present-day language of darkness, blackness, and negativity is inseparable from the history of how African peoples were originally labeled as black.

Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson became an ancestor far too soon. On this day, this shortest day following the longest night, I honor her memory by reflecting on the beauty, the blessings, and the comfort of darkness. The stunning night sky made more striking by the cold. The velvet quality of the darkened room, or sanctuary. The flower bulbs I planted last month, held in the darkness of the earth, nurtured, waiting. Darkness has so much meaning, and metaphor has so much power. Use it wisely. Use it radically.

To close with the words of one last Unitarian Universalist author, Patricia Montley, as shared by HOPE from the volume In Nature’s Honor:

On Solstice Eve, value the dark. On this longest night of the year, before the light overcomes the dark, sit in the dark (alone or with others) and think about the importance of darkness. Bless mushrooms that grow in the dark and honeysuckle that sends its luscious scents into the night. Be grateful for the darkness that soothes us to sleep, the darkness that animals require for hibernation. Give thanks for sheltering dark places: the rich earth where seeds germinate, the caves that harbored our ancient ancestors (and where some of our sun gods were born), the cellars that keep us safe from tornadoes, the wombs that provide our first nourishment.

On this Solstice, for me, hope is in the darkness. Hope enfolds us like a blanket of night; the darkest, most comforting night of the year. After all, HOPE is Black.

You can read Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson’s full reflection here. You might also be interested in one teacher’s take, via Teaching Tolerance, on bringing critiques of problematic uses of color as metaphor into the classroom.

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3 thoughts on “Dark and Light: Practicing Balance—and Countering Racism—in Metaphors

  1. Thank you for this beautiful and needed post. I struggle in my own work, and in noting it in client’s work, with these types of metaphors, as well as the language that seems to be all over using words like “crazy” to describe so many everyday happenings. Your work has helped raise my awareness. Thank you! Reina

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for this thoughtful essay, and your introduction to the words of Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson. I just finished reading Dionne Brand’s “An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading” and this essay is a perfect companion piece. Unravelling the internalized culture of a white-supremacist, hetero-normative, binary worldview is tricky. And necessary. And urgent. As a white reader/writer, I am so very grateful for guides like Dionne Brand, Hope Johnson, and you.


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