Metaphors of Colors: Black and White

In my last few posts here, I have talked about metaphors of metals and some colors.  Today I would like to add a few more metaphors based on our experience with colors. It should be noted that some color metaphors are based on experiences with nature, e.g., those derived from white, black or green, while others are completely arbitrary such as those based on red or green traffic lights. Today I will concentrate on metaphors derived from our perceptions of black and white, light and dark and the grey shadows in between.

Black and White

The two most common color terms used metaphorically in English are black and white, used to distinguish the two dominant races in the United States.  African-Americans are often referred as blacks, while Caucasians are referred to as whites.

Separate drinking fountains for "whites" and "coloreds" in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1939
Separate drinking fountains for “whites” and “coloreds” in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1939


Example:  In 2008, Barack Obama became the first black president.



Example:  All U.S. presidents prior to Barack Obama were white males. 


white trash

Trash is another word for garbage.  Poor white people who do not take care of their houses or who have junk or garbage in their yards are sometimes called white trash.

Example:  Local politicians try to clean up white trash neighborhoods and try to get people to take better care of their homes and yards.


If you coat something with a thick layer of white paint, this is called whitewashing.  In metaphorical terms, whitewashing means covering up the truth about something.

Example:  American citizens like our politicians to tell us the truth about the economy, not whitewash the facts to make things look better than they are.

black and white

                  Black and white are the two colors with the most contrast.  If we say something is black and white, it is very clear and well understood.

Example:  After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the reason for the U.S. to go to war against Japan was black and white.

Example:  The causes of the economic crisis in 2008 were not black and white; there were many different complicated causes.

black market

While white normally has a meaning of something good, black often means something bad, since evil things are thought to happen in the dark or absence of white light.  A black market is a system of commerce where items are sold illegally.

Example:  In some countries where everyday items are hard to find or very expensive, there is often a black market where one can buy these goods more cheaply.


Someone who is blackhearted is a very bad person.

Example:  The warlords in Asia and the Middle East who make a profit from killing other people must certainly be blackhearted 



Just recently, people have begun to describe minorities with dark skin as being brown.  However, this is not common usage.

Example:  In 2001, author Richard Rodriguez published a controversial about race in America called Brown: The Last Discovery of America.

black-brown divide

When there is conflict between dark-skinned African-Africans and brown-skinned minorities, this is sometimes called the black-brown divide.

Example:  If Mexican-Americans and African-Americans are competing for the same jobs, this conflict may result in a growing black-brown divide. 

Light and Dark 


Similar to black and white, the concepts of light and dark are opposites.  Anything in the light is considered good; anything in the dark is considered bad.

Example:  Let us hope that the illegal dealings of any politician will be brought into the light so they can be prosecuted.


Something that is bright is very good.

Example:  Even though World War II was a horrible war around the world, the bright side of the story is that world peace was achieved for many years afterwards.


Something referred to as stark is very clear, bright and easy to see.

Example:  The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a stark reminder that every country must control its borders.

turn away from the light

                  If someone turns away from the light, this means that he or she is changing from a good person to a bad person.

Example:  Some Democrats complained that the Bush administration turned away from the light when it allegedly authorized forms of torture in Guantanamo Bay prison.

What's on the dark side of the moon?
What’s on the dark side of the moon?


People or groups described as being dark are considered to be very bad.

Example:  In Iraq, American soldiers had to fight against the dark forces of terrorism.

in the dark

The concept of darkness can also mean that there is a lack of knowledge.  To say that someone is working in the dark means that they do not understand what they are doing.

Example:  Fighting terrorism is like working in the dark since we do not always know who we are fighting.

dark money

                  Most of the money donated to political campaigns is easily traced to the donor. However, after the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court in 2010, people and organizations can donate money anonymously.  These funds are sometimes called dark money because the source is kept secret or in the dark.

Example:  Critics of the Citizens United ruling complained that there is too much dark money in presidential campaigns.  They would rather know who is giving the money to each candidate.

dark suits

People who wear dark suits are thought to be very serious or dangerous, usually working for the government.  The phrase dark suits can be used to describe the clothing or the people themselves.

Example:  Government agents in dark suits arrested the politician for tax evasion.

light-colored suits

Men wearing light-colored suits are thought to be friendly and helpful.

Example:  The light-colored suits from the government were aid workers who came to help the poor people find jobs.



A shadow is caused by something or someone blocking sunlight. In English the word shadow can have two meanings.  For one, someone in another person’s shadow is trying to be as good as that person who came before him or her.  Secondly, someone working in the shadows is thought to be doing something bad or illegal.

Example:  In the 2008 election, while George Bush was still the Republican president, John McCain struggled to get out from under George Bush’s shadow and become the next president on his own.

Example:  Terrorist networks often work in the shadows of foreign countries and only come into the light when they attack. 


Buildings and trees can block the sun on hot days bringing cooler shade.  However, being shady carries the same meaning as working in the shadows.

Example:  The U.S. diplomat felt uncomfortable meeting with officials in other countries if those officials are surrounded by shady assistants.  

gray/gray areas

Gray is a color halfway between black and white.  In metaphorical terms, the word gray can represent something that is neither good nor bad.  In another sense as the opposite of black and white, something termed gray can mean that the situation is not clear or well understood.

Example:  International spies are known for working in the gray areas; are they working for good or evil? 


The term bleak is from an old word meaning a lack of color.  Something that looks bleak is not a good situation.  There is little chance that the problem will be solved.

Example:  During the 1940s and the height of World War II, the prospects of winning the war looked very bleak, but in the end the Allies beat Hitler and won the war. 


The term dim is similar to that of bleak in that there is a lack of light or hope that the situation is very good.

Example:  American citizens take a dim view of politicians who do not do their jobs very well; they should work harder to help people.

Faded colors on the Sistine Chapel.
Faded colors on the Sistine Chapel.

fade away

When colors lose their intensity, they can become faded, e.g., dark blue can become light blue if exposed to too much sun.  We then say that the color has faded away.  In metaphorical terms, both good and bad events can fade away from people’s memories.

Example:  If someone in your family has been killed in a war, the memories of that horrible event never fade away.

fade to black

In the movies when the film is finished, the screen gradually goes black.  In popular terms, a problem or event that fades to black is finished and usually forgotten.

Example:  Although Jimmy Carter did not win reelection as president in 1980, his career did not fade to black; he has remained active in politics for many years after that.

Next time:  Metaphors of Red, Blue, Green and Yellow