Sometimes we need a bit of colour in our lives. We need the light to find our own way out of the darkness. And, yes, we need to find our own way. Expectations crush us, our lives seem predetermined and our mind recedes into the grey. Maybe a dash of colour will lead us the way.
Colours as such are a weird concept. We all have a mental image when we say red or green or blue, but if we dig deeper it is next to impossible to describe a colour without falling back on these basic colours. Can we even be sure that you see the same as I do when I say, “red”? Probably not, or actually maybe. But that doesn’t really matter. At least I don’t think it does. All of our experiences are fundamentally our own and really hard to relay to others. Yes, we have language, but a language is a standardised way to crawl slowly out of Plato’s cave. As a mere model of our world, it necessarily makes abstractions and implies assumptions about our world that aren’t necessarily true or true for us. A great example of how language can mould our perception of reality is grammatical gender like it is used in German. Any occupational noun (except a few that were traditionally associated with womanly work like nursing) is male by default in German. You can add a suffix like “-in” to it to make it explicitly female, but there is no way to make an occupational noun truly gender neutral without an awkward unpronounceable letter-addition or the use of both variants. But is this truly gender neutral? I don’t think it is. German has no good way to include people who don’t feel adequately described by either male or female gender identities. And in my experiences, this lack of the German language makes German speakers even blinder to the world of non-binary or genderfluid people.
But back to colour. We already established that language can make us blind. But what does blindness do to our colour perception? Well, it’s dependent on what we mean by blindness. Let us assume you are totally blind and can’t see even one shed of light. Does colour still exist? The question is really hard to answer. Hey, don’t expect me to know all the answers.
Fundamentally, colour is just different photons with different energies. Does it require these photons to hit our retinas to become colour? I don’t know. But our colour perception is definitely more complicated than it seems at first. We can’t just see orange and that’s it. Our eyes don’t just have a receptor sensitive to any colour there is. Not only have we a limit of what on the electromagnetic spectrum we can see at all. We can’t see ultraviolet light for example. But we also have only three kinds of different colour receptors. So any colour we can see is just made up by our brain as a mixture of the different light levels or cones detect. Human cone cells are receptive to blue red and green. Hence the colours of every pixel on this screen: red, green and blue. This screen works differently than our eyes though. While this screen has the same proportion of red, green and blue subpixels, our eyes generally have fewer cone cells receptive to blue and the percentages of red- and green-receptive cone cells vary quite a bit even in people with quote “regular” vision.
What stands out is that in the end, we in almost any case agree on what red is and what blue is. We have many categories we collectively agree upon, some are more cultural some others are more basic, but even terms for colours have a certain order of appearance in human language and of course that order influences how we perceive the world around us.
Still, this doesn’t answer the question of whether colour exists without perception, but to be honest I don’t have an answer to that. I just know that a dash of colour in the right place can make me quite happy. Why that is? I don’t know, but it might have to do with another categorisation I previously mentioned in this essay.
The category I’m talking about is gender. We’re all automatically sorted into one of these bins at birth or quite often even before we even leave our mother’s womb. We get a pronoun and our allocated room (some people like to call it a nursery) gets either painted in a slight pink or a dashing light blue. Of course, there are cases where this categorisation fails. Not everyone is born with a clear set of genitalia that fits neatly into one category or the other, some people don’t feel like they were sorted into the right box. But most of us are sorted cleanly, sometimes even if this decision should have maybe been postponed until we could make a decision for ourselves. The category itself isn’t the problem necessarily. Trying to categorise everything is human nature after all and usually, a useful shortcut for our everyday mental life. Just our desire to have neat boxes makes things complicated and our expectation, that nobody should change their assigned box makes these to categories appear a bit restrictive to some – maybe even like a mental prison to some … me included.
I was sorted into the male category at birth. And well at least at first there was nothing wrong with that. A baby doesn’t care about societal expectations of gender. And why should it? Why should anyone, well I don’t know? I only know that people do in fact care. And at least for me, that is a bad thing. It is confining. Granted, I don’t like the male features of my body. Some of them I hate, a few I am indifferent about, and only a single one I really like, but does my body define my own identity? In part of course, but in the end, it is only secondary to my mind. Do I just want to wear nail polish? Yes, I want to wear a dash of colour on my fingertips generally associated with feminity, but it’s only a small part of what I want. I would also enjoy it tremendously if someone would flick the elusive switch that would make my body magically appear more feminine, but to be honest, I don’t care about my name, I don’t care about my pronouns as long as they don’t compromise my safety. My identity isn’t defined by the confines of society. On one hand, I, generally, enjoy feminine fashion more than men’s clothing. On the other hand, I really like me a suit, a tuxedo, or a tailcoat. I like me my Oxfords, but I also love me my high heeled pumps. At some point, I just want my tie to match my nail polish. Want the colour of my shoe to match my skirt. What am I? Male or female? Red or Blue? I don’t know, and I only care because society cares. But I’m captive in society’s expectations. I try to be me as good as I can.
Colour is my way out of it. Colour coordination is my goal. One day in a suit and tie, one day in a dress and high heels. Beneath that preferably a female body. Tie, handkerchief and nails matched.
At least maybe, that would make me happy. Sometimes it’s just small things though: perhaps just a dash of nail polish will suffice to elicit a smile from me. That’s definitely easier to pull off than the whole rest of my desires.