DISTINGUISHED STUDENT ESSAY

Asha Hassan Nooli is a rising sophomore at Lang College, and a first-generation American coming from a Somali background. She is interested in stimulating social reform on a global scale. The essay that follows was Hassan Nooli’s contribution to the New School Dean’s Honor Symposium, an annual celebration of the best work being done by the college’s most thoughtful, dedicated, and engaged students.  


How does the way we view the color black affect how we view Blackness ? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, black is “the very darkest color owing to complete absorption of light; the opposite of white.” The color black, or lack thereof, is quantifiable. Although the physical science behind how black is viewed through our retinas and recognized as color through tiny nervous pathways in our brains is quite complicated, how multiple different societies scattered across time view black is even murkier. From ancient Egypt to modern-day America, the concept of black and its assigned attributes are a reflection of the culture’s views and fears. And as global societies cement their cultural connotations as time goes on, a clear, identifiable link between the social standing of the color black and the conception of racial Blackness emerges.

Kem, the ancient Egyptian word for the color black, had a “symbolic association [with] color with life and fertility,” according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. The gods and goddesses of Egyptian pantheon were often depicted in black ink to further push the culture’s correlation with the color black along with the notion of fertility. How the people of ancient Egypt viewed black can paint a vivid picture of core values. For an agricultural community reliant on the Nile to bring water and nutrients to their farmlands, the darker the soil equals the more mineral-rich it is. Due to the culture’s high reliance on a good harvest and generally desired fertile lands, the value of the color black is propelled from being just another adjective to a commodity.

If we travel to the west, the color carries a different meaning. Often associated with mourning and suffering, the color carried a heavy negative connotation in Europe. This connection with black and its perceived repugnant overtones stems from the Bible’s influence on how western societies connected with themselves and the environment. In the bible, all things light was associated with God or Their angels. In Psalm 104:2 and John 1:5, “God is light” refers to the pure, omnipresent power of God. Before Lucifer fell out of grace, he was referred to as the “light-bringer” (Isaiah 14:12), a special nickname that evokes God’s light and power. In the same religious texts, there are multiple passages that refer to the color black and its association with evil, devils, and hell. In Christianity, there has been a clear dichotomy with white or light connecting to ideas of purity and righteousness and black or dark connecting to ideas of corruption and forsakenness. With the influence of Judeo-Christian values, these beliefs made their way into the foundation of western culture: The color black was a manifestation of all things pessimistic. This association with the color black and malevolence only broadened with the introduction of racial classification, imperialism, and the colonization of the Global South.

Now, in a world running on gadgets and gizmos, Blackness is burdened to carry the negative stereotypes on its own. The mere association with the color black is enough to infer malicious morals in digital media. For example, films geared toward children based on western fairytales always make the differentiation between good and evil by visually contrasting the hero and villain by using white and black to represent each one respectively. Take the 1992 Disney film Aladdin, a children’s movie in which the villain, Jafar, is characterized by dark robes and skin, and facial features indicative of heritage from the Global South. The gullible yet lovable Sultan, by contrast, wears white and has noticeably lighter skin. Dark skin is seen as at most, evil — and at least, unwanted. This trope has been perpetrated throughout multimedia, most notably in global beauty adverts such as Fair & Lovely and other “brightening” creams that bring the promise of a life upgrade along with paler skin in a tube.

These associations have created implicit bias against Blackness, a bias which has often manifested itself as surveillance, disregard, and/or fatality to the perceived threat of Blackness. And when society deems someone to be too closely associated with Blackness, that person’s presence is categorized as a nefarious one that should be met with force. The infamous O. J. Simpson trial of 1995 is a case in point. The coverage was highly racialized, with photos of Simpson varying depending on news outlets’ framing and spin on the case. In one of the most famous examples of racial bias, Newsweek and TIME magazineran the O. J. trial on the front page with two different takes, one with Simpson as the victim and the other as the perpetrator. How did the accredited news organizations portray contrasting views? Simply, TIME put an edited, visibly darker Simpson as the front cover. The darker edit made it easier for mainstream America to believe that Simpson was guilty of the crime. This sparked public outrage, as the case was already a highly racialized event.

The implicit bias against Blackness is powerful. The media’s race for engagement via deliberately playing into color bias in the news coverage on Simpson’s case highlights the sadistic and severe actions color bias evokes in real time. Just recently, in 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking home when George Zimmerman, a community watch member, assumed that the teenager was carrying a concealed weapon. In fact, Martin had gone out to buy Skittles, and was walking back home to watch over his younger sibling. His sheer presence, his Blackness, was enough to make the armed, self-appointed watchman forget that Martin was just a boy, forget that it was his neighborhood too. Trayvon Martin was not the first person to lose their life because of the negative connotations that surround Blackness and he certainly was not the last.

When I was younger, I noticed that institutional systems seemed to accept racism as their hegemonic overlord. The idea of race and country of origin had great influences on not only interpersonal relationships but also how one connects to the bigger picture. Like most Black peoples, I was only the ripe age of five when I realized I was being treated differently because of race. Fortunately, as I grew older and became more critical of the world around me, I became intrigued by how our society formed how it continues to operate through new mediums such as film, social media, photography, et cetera. Mass media is a reflection of society’s values, ideals, and fears. By analyzing how the color black and Blackness are depicted in a nefarious light and how it creates an implicit negative bias that leads to the disfranchisement and brutalization of Black people in all aspects of life, my goal is to call attention to this association happening every day and decode racism in the new age of ones and zeroes: the binary system of the internet.

During the colonization of the Americas and African nations, racial theory and eugenics gained prominence, as colonizers scrambled for a scientific justification for their racial caste. As a result, European imperialist powers used preexisting negative connotations of the color black not only to excuse the horrific actions committed to the rest of the world, but also to introduce the social concept of Blackness to solidify the theory of racial superiority. Through colonial discourse, it was taught and spread that the classification of Black is to be the physical embodiment of all things negative and barbaric. Racial theory and the man-made inherent evil that “Blackness” carries in the global context is the foundation of global culture today. The creation and persistence of the racial caste system indicates the society’s need to categorize, fear, and want to diminish the “other.” Our global system had placed no significance in and often depreciated the color black — and, by extension, Blackness — due to man-made ideas and superstitions. But the meaning we put behind black and Blackness serves a testament to culture’s obsession with justifying current reality and creating new ones where its ideas and beliefs are validated.

The creation of the internet not only expedited the spread of racism in temporal reality but also can be used as a force to reassert the importance of race in our society. Now, you can be the victim of racism trans-globally, in a matter of seconds. By understanding how modern society fortifies and rationalizes its racial class system, we can start to deconstruct what it means to be Black from black — and disrupt the feedback loop of color symbolism. Through this disassociation, we can dismantle the power race has over us and challenge the socio-political Goliath that is racism.

Technology has become a new way to instill society’s belief system onto people. Daily we are being exposed to screens, subconsciously soaking up cultural connotations of the color black and Blackness as untrustworthy. The advent of the internet is not helping break this cycle: rather, it is reinventing fascism. To truly free ourselves of this faulty code, we must truly understand the origins of anti-Blackness and how black and Blackness merged in the eyes of pop culture. As innovations in technology and software continue, these resources become programmed as tools of oppression rather than liberation. We must actively ask ourselves: How are we staging Blackness and what are we depicting as “dark”?

Asha Hassan Nooli is a Somali essayist and artist focusing on stimulating social reform through storytelling, digital media, and politics.

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