Apr 28, 2021 • 10M

The Gnōmic: What Does Colour Mean?

When is white, white. When is black, black, and what does racist mean?

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Larry G. Maguire
The Sunday Letters Podcast is the weekly audio newsletter from organisational psychologist Larry Maguire on the meaning & purpose of daily work and our paradoxical relationship with it. We explore how we may break free from tiresome means-to-an-end labour and take command of their own working lives. Topics include solo working, careers, entrepreneurship, small business economics, society and culture. Content follows the written newsletter, which goes out to subscribers every Sunday.
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A Thought

What does it mean to be white, what does it mean to be black, what about all the shades in between, and since when has discrimination be so easy to spot?

Twitter seems to know, so I asked for clarification… I thought the Twitter police would string me up, or worse still, the racism police, but I didn’t get a single response, probably because I’m largely anonymous there.

Social Psychology defines Racism as prejudice and discrimination against people based on their ethnicity or race. Prejudice is an unfavourable attitude toward a particular social group and its members. And Discrimination is the behavioural expression of that prejudice1. According to Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice2, prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviour consist of three components;

  1. Cognitive - One’s beliefs about a group

  2. Affective - strong negative feelings about that group and the qualities it is believed to possess.

  3. Conative - Intentions to behave in certain ways towards that group.

Some scholars don’t accept this model. Rupert Brown3 suggests the following definition;

“…the holding of derogatory attitudes or beliefs, the expression of negative affect, or the display of hostile or discriminatory behaviour towards members of a group.”

I remember when I was a kid in the scouts in the 1980s. We went to an international scouting event in the UK, and my friends and I found ourselves isolated and on the receiving end of a tirade of abuse from an English scout leader. As far as he was concerned, everyone from Ireland at that time was a terrorist. We got an apology, but that didn’t remove the experience of being singled out simply because of where we came from. That was mild compared to what Irish people living in the UK at the time had to endure. The IRA had active units operating in London at the time, and I suppose we could forgive people’s general response. But discrimination against children? Discrimination at all? Maybe not.

Racism is a complex human response to a perceived threat to one’s way of life, culture, or established group behaviour and attitudes, and the above by no means covers the entire topic. If you want to find out more about it, read the below references. The bottom line is that Racism is not as simple as black and white, or even shades of brown or pale skin. It goes much deeper than skin colour, and I think people who can examine it in a sober and measured way know this. Although, how things play out in the media and how society processes conflict incidents seem to suggest a much simpler situation.

That’s our nature too. We oversimplify things in order to process them. It’s easy to think in terms of black and white and more difficult to take the time to process the variables involved. Impossible, in fact, to process all the variables. What is true is that human beings are adept at using differentiating attributes to destroy one another. It’s insane.

My short time engaged in exploring the human condition has taught me one thing I can be sure of - human beings constitute a primitive species that believes itself to be more intelligent, loving, and caring than it actually is. We are in self destruct mode, and in that sense, I have to agree with Freud assessment of humanity.

There are, of course, moments when we play above the base level instinct to survive the perceived threat others pose. However, it isn’t easy to see this current version of human being surviving beyond the next one hundred years on balance. We’re just too crazy.

A Quote

“Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.”

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents4

A Book

There are four to choose from below. Pick one.

An Album

On a softer note, music can be our salvation. Here’s one that may calm the storm.


Hogg, M., & Vaughan, G. (2018). Social psychology. Harlow, England [etc.]: Pearson.


Allport, G. W., Clark, K., & Pettigrew, T. (1954). The nature of prejudice.


Brown, R. (2011). Prejudice: Its social psychology. John Wiley & Sons.


Freud, S., Strachey, J., & Freud, A. (1955). The standard edition of the complete psychological works.