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The Color White Has a Dark Past

From race to wealth to cleanliness, the color’s connotations have a long history

(Yosuke Tanaka/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

For a color, white holds a lot of symbolic power in many western cultures as emblematic of goodness and purity. But the way white got that power is a pretty dark tale, as Courtney Humphries writes for Nautilus.

Ironically, before white became symbolic of wealth and cleanliness, black was one of the most prevalent colors that evoked royalty and power. In another piece for Nautilus, Mark Peplow writes that just as the color white began to gain favor among European elites, explorers were beginning to encounter the indigenous people of Africa. The white/black dichotomy that evolved played right into racist ideologies — ideals that Humphries notes were quickly embraced by Europeans eager to legitimize their racist beliefs. 

Because dirt showed up most easily on white clothing, writes Humphries, it soon became symbolic in European fashion — but not because the wealthy didn’t get their clothes dirty. In fact, people believed that white clothes cleansed the body, drawing out dirt and filth while they were worn. Eventually, the idea that white clothing had special health benefits went away, but the color's cachet remained because of how hard the garments were to clean. That's why the phrase “white collar” became associated with high-status jobs.

Humphries also notes that modern notions of hygiene played into the concept that white was clean. Soon, she writes, white became the highest proof of cleanliness, spawning white soap and sterile white uniforms in hospitals by the early 20th century.

But the sterile surface that a bleached-white sheet might symbolize could actually harm health. In recent years, researchers have found that people's obsession with cleanliness and hygiene is altering their microbiomes, which in turn could cause rising rates of asthma and serious allergies.

Without some exposure to the bacteria that is present everywhere in the world, people might actually be more vulnerable to disease. In fact, those same bacteria might even help treat certain diseases. But symbols and meaning shift all the time — by the end of the 21st century, it’s possible that white might not appear to be as pure and clean as it was before.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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