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Stop using “dark” to mean “bad”: let’s make our language less racist

Photo: dark clouds and skies with mountains, with caption: Stop using dark to mean bad: Making our language less racist

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Metaphors are powerful tools to emphasize abstract concepts. Dr. King uses a metaphor of darkness for hate and retaliation, with light meaning love and understanding. While it might seem innocuous on its surface, why does “black” and “dark” so often mean bad, while “light” and “white” mean good?

This quote by the greatest civil rights icon of our time demonstrates the depth of white supremacy and bias in our language.

These metaphors originate from Plato’s allegory of the cave and later, the Bible and other religious texts. In most religions, darkness signifies all that separates us from God, because God is light. Throughout history, darkness has been linked with ignorance, fear, and evil, while whiteness symbolizes purity, knowledge, and virtue. This language has seeped into our collective soul and consciousness, reinforcing harmful racial and binary stereotypes.

Image through a rainy window of lights in the dark

Consider these expressions we use all the time without thinking:

  • Dark side, dark money, dark thoughts

  • Black sheep, black market, blackmail, blacklisted

  • Blackhearted

  • Whitewash

  • Turn away from the dark/light

  • In the dark

  • White hat, white knight

  • Shadows or shady

  • The future is dark

  • Angel food (white) or devil’s food (brown) cake

These common expressions associate darkness with negative qualities, subconsciously reinforcing racial biases. The influence of language pervades all of society’s systems.

Already, Black and brown children and adults are bombarded by inescapable racism every day of their lives. They are constantly hearing the messages, outright or subtle (like this language), that Black is bad or "less than," instead of celebrating their beautiful dark skin and cultures.

From legal terms to marketing campaigns, the use of black/white and light/dark metaphors can contribute to systemic racism by reinforcing prejudiced perspectives and shaping societal attitudes.

Images of darkness and light are not always racist

“Hello darkness, my old friend.” -Simon and Garfunkel

Not all references to light, darkness, black, and white are racist, of course. Darkness can be comforting and restful. Without darkness, we would not see the stars.

Yes, darkness can be scary too. Some of the worst crimes are committed at night. Children feel lost or scared in the absence of light. But fear of darkness has led people with white skin to fear people of dark skin. When we associate darkness with fear and evil in our language, that fear can influence our real-life human interactions.

My husband and I recently traveled to Denmark to visit our son, who is studying there this fall. Scandinavians know how to embrace the darkness and settle into the “hygge”of the winter, as this article from Iceland demonstrates.

What can we do?

  1. Acknowledging the issue is the first step to change. Start by noticing these metaphors in our language and culture. They are everywhere.

  2. Next, try to use alternative terms in your conversation and writing. For example, you can substitute “difficult,” “sad,” “tough,” “challenging,” “evil,” or other words for dark.

  3. When you see these terms, educate! I am seeing the word “dark” used in a highly regarded book about the history of the Ku Klux Klan. I plan to contact the writer and point out the problem. Most people have never given these metaphors a second thought.

  4. And finally, give context to historical uses of these terms. Educator Lillie Marshall asks what a little girl with beautiful dark brown skin might think when she hears a teacher read how it was a “dark time.” Marshall points out how helpful it would be if the teacher started by saying, “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.”

Discussing the impact of language and actively choosing more neutral expressions can break down ingrained biases and contribute to a more equitable society.

I’m not saying it’s easy to change our language and thinking! But we can do it…and I think it’s worth it. When you start using different words to signify “bad” or evil,” you’ll realize how pervasive these metaphors are.

Photo of a sign that says "Black is beautiful"

Let’s celebrate the gifts of darkness

By critically examining the use of darkness/light and black/white metaphors, we can promote language that is more inclusive, respectful, and aware of its potential to perpetuate racial biases.

When we become aware and intentionally change our language, we can contribute to dismantling the systemic racism woven into the fabric of our society.

I'll leave you with this video by the beautiful Lupita N'yongo, talking about messages she and other dark-skinned people have received throughout their lives.

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