Decolonizing Language: Unshackling “Dark” & “Black” from Metaphoric Representations of Negative Attributes

Adoyo
9 min readMar 29, 2021

Does the way we use words really matter? How often — while reading a written text (news, or analysis, or even fiction), or while listening to somebody speak (in conversation, on tv, on the radio), or maybe even talking yourself, telling stories, sharing thoughts, or trying to teach something new — how often have you seen or heard the words “black” or “dark” used as metaphors to characterize negative attributes?

When used as adjectives to talk about concretely observable attributes — like pigment or degrees of luminosity — terms like “dark” and “black” are simply neutral and descriptive: for example, surfaces that absorb every wavelength of light and reflect none back are indeed just “black”; and where the absence of light permeates, it IS simply “dark”.

But have you ever considered the added baggage when these terms are used metaphorically to signify negative concepts or attributes, betraying a habit of language that reinforces stereotypes that “dark” and “black” are also “evil” or “malevolent”? Have you ever considered that through these linguistic habits we help reinforce the way society has normalized the marginalization, exploitation, brutalization, and murder of people whose skin color is “dark” or “black” because of the unquestioned assumption that “dark” and “black” are bad?

If you haven’t noticed this habit of language, perhaps you can start to notice it now. Take a second to reflect on how the negative metaphors behind the words and phrases that use “dark” and “black” to mean evil and bad also serve to reinforce the hatred of the world for people whose skin color is “dark” or “black”. Colonizers for centuries have weaponized language for dominance, marrying metaphors for evil to Nature’s own penchant for harmony and variation.

As teachers and writers, we can teach our students better, and spread the word that there is a fundamental difference between what is empirically black or dark in pigment or where there is a paucity of light, and the figurative conception of the evils of the world. We can actively contribute to clarifying this difference. We can decolonize the language we use, and teach our students and others we know to notice the unspoken link between the language we use and the evils we let fester in our own cultural behavioral patterns.

To help get started those who want to engage and do something to change the way we think culturally about one another, I have compiled a Thesaurus of synonyms for “DARK” and “BLACK” from the Oxford Dictionary of English. You will find, in this compilation, a truly impressive linguistic repository of actual terms that speakers of the English language can use when they wish to talk about something undesirable or unpleasant without simply defaulting to the tertiary, quarternary, and sometimes even fifth order degree of figurative language that uses “dark” and “black” to signify experiences of dread, depression, corruption, malevolence, etc.

You may also notice a phrase like “in the black” which is also figurative and in fact bears a positive connotation. If ever an exception proved the rule, here is one that PROVES the lexical neutrality of the pigment “black” which is here used to indicate a positive quantity. The rhetorical figure in question is synechdoche — a specific kind of rhetorical figure where the material from which something is made or by which it is done is used as the shorthand for the end product or result, in this case black-pigmented ink being used to indicate financial liquidity. Another example of synechdoche in the same semantic field would when a person offers to pay with “plastic” to indicate that they plan to make a purchase using a credit card account.

Ultimately, my hope is that as people notice the simple fact that despite figurative language like metaphors, similes, synechdoches, and the rest, the terms “black” and “dark” and their proxinate relations are not, by denotation, either negative or positive; they are essentially neutral and simply descriptive when indicating pigment or degrees of luminosity.

The figurative language that bears scrutiny is that which insists on interpreting these and related terms with negative connotations that linguistically reinforce a worldview that has normalized, as somehow natural and even righteous, the disdain, hatred, and violence against black and dark bodies.

I hereby invite and encourage others to create similar resources in other languages as well, starting with the metaphorical language of color that most closely evokes to language of racialized physiology.

Why say “dark” or “black” when there are myriad other words in language brimming with nuance and depth to express the ideas you wish to convey? The very least we can get with this awareness is a richer, more precise vocabulary. The very most? Who knows… maybe world peace, justice, and harmony.

In the thesaurus listings below, the primary, first-degree terms that are typically replaced by the blanket metaphor “dark” and “black” have been rendered in bold font within the listing.

So let us begin with a word that writers love to use:

DENIGRATE

| ˈdɛnɪɡreɪt |
| ˈdɛnɪɡreɪt |
| ˈdɛnɪɡreɪt |
verb [with object]

  • criticize unfairly; disparage: doom and gloom merchants who denigrate their own country.

ORIGIN

  • late Middle English (in the sense ‘blacken, make dark’): from Latin late Middle English (in the sense ‘blacken, make dark’): from Latin denigrat- ‘blackened’, from the verb ‘blackened’, from the verb denigrare, from , from de- ‘away, completely’ + ‘away, completely’ + nigrare (from (from niger ‘black’).

DENIGRATE

verb

it amused him to denigrate his guests: disparage, belittle, diminish, deprecate, cast aspersions on, decry, criticize unfairly, attack, speak ill of, speak badly of, besmirch the character of, besmirch the name of, give someone a bad name, sully the reputation of, spread lies about, defame, slander, libel, calumniate, besmirch, run down, abuse, insult, slight, revile, malign, vilify;

  • North American: slur;
  • informal: bad-mouth, slate, do a hatchet job on, pull to pieces, pull apart, sling mud at, throw mud at, drag through the mud; British informal rubbish, slag off, have a go at;
  • rare: asperse, derogate, vilipend, vituperate.
  • ANTONYMS: extol.

DARK

(adjective)

1 a dark night: unlit, unlighted, un-illuminated, ill-lit, poorly lit; starless, moonless, dim, dingy, gloomy, dusky, indistinct, shadowy, shady; leaden, overcast, sunless;

  • literary: crepuscular, tenebrous;
  • rare: Stygian, Cimmerian, Tartarean, caliginous.
  • ANTONYMS: bright.

2 keep it dark | | a dark secret: mysterious, secret, hidden, concealed, veiled, unrevealed, covert, clandestine; enigmatic, arcane, esoteric, obscure, abstruse, recondite, recherché, inscrutable, impenetrable, opaque, incomprehensible, cryptic;

  • Military: covert.

3 dark hair: brunette, dark brown, auburn, tawny, copper-colored, coppery, chestnut, chestnut-colored, sable, ebony.

  • ANTONYMS: blonde.

4 dark skin: swarthy, sallow, olive, dusky, ebony; tanned, bronzed, suntanned, sunburned; dark-skinned.

  • ANTONYMS: pale.

5 the dark days of the war: tragic, disastrous, calamitous, catastrophic, cataclysmic, ruinous, devastating; dire, ghastly, awful, unfortunate, dreadful, horrible, terrible, horrific, hideous, horrendous, frightful, atrocious, abominable, abhorrent, gruesome, grisly, monstrous, nightmarish, heinous, harrowing; wretched, woeful;

  • literary: direful.
  • ANTONYMS: happy.

6 my mind is full of dark thoughts: gloomy, dismal, pessimistic, negative, defeatist, downbeat, gloom-ridden, cynical, bleak, grim, fatalistic, sombre, drab, dreary; despairing, despondent, depressed, dejected, demoralized, hopeless, cheerless, joyless, melancholy, glum, lugubrious, Eeyorish, grave, funereal, morose, mournful, doleful, suspicious, distrustful, doubting, alarmist.

  • ANTONYMS: optimistic.

7 Matthew flashed a dark look at her: moody, brooding, sullen, dour, glum, morose, sulky, frowning, scowling, glowering, angry, forbidding, threatening, ominous.

  • ANTONYMS: kindly.

8 so many dark deeds had been committed | a dark secret: evil, wicked, sinful, immoral, wrong, morally wrong, wrongful, bad, iniquitous; ungodly, unholy, irreligious, unrighteous, sacrilegious, profane, blasphemous, impious, godless, base, mean, vile; shameful, discreditable, unspeakable, foul, monstrous, shocking, outrageous, atrocious, abominable, reprehensible, hateful, detestable, despicable, odious, contemptible, horrible, heinous, execrable, diabolical, diabolic, fiendish, vicious, murderous, barbarous, rotten, perverted, reprobate, sordid, degenerate, depraved, dissolute, dishonorable, dishonest, unscrupulous, unprincipled;

  • informal: crooked, bent, warped, low-down, stinking, dirty, shady;
  • Law: malfeasant;
  • rare: dastardly, peccable, egregious, flagitious.
  • ANTONYMS: good, virtuous.

(noun)

1 he’s afraid of the dark: darkness, blackness, absence of light, gloom, gloominess, dimness, dullness, murk, murkiness, shadowiness, shadow, shade, shadiness, dusk, twilight, gloaming;

  • rare: tenebrosity.
  • ANTONYMS: light.

2 as dark fell, the street lights went on | she only went out after dark: night, night-time, darkness, hours of darkness; nightfall, evening, twilight, sunset.

  • ANTONYMS: day; dawn.

PHRASES

  • in the dark
  • informal: we’re being kept in the dark about what is happening: unaware of, ignorant of, in ignorance of, oblivious to, uninformed about, unenlightened about, unacquainted with, unconversant with;
  • rare: nescient of.
  • ANTONYMS: aware.

BLACK

(adjective)

1 a black horse: dark, pitch-black, as black as pitch, pitch-dark, jet-black, inky, coal-black, blackish; Heraldry sable;

  • literary: Stygian;
  • ANTONYMS: white.

2 a black night: unlit, dark, starless, moonless, unlighted, unilluminated; gloomy, dusky, dim, murky, dingy, shadowy, overcast;

  • literary: crepuscular, tenebrous;
  • rare: Stygian, Cimmerian, Tartarean, caliginous.
  • ANTONYMS: clear, bright.

3 the blackest day of the war: tragic, disastrous, calamitous, catastrophic, cataclysmic, ruinous, devastating, fatal, fateful, wretched, woeful, grievous, lamentable, miserable, dire, unfortunate, awful, terrible;

  • literary: direful.
  • ANTONYMS: joyful.

4 Mary was in a black mood: miserable, unhappy, sad, wretched, broken-hearted, heartbroken, grief-stricken, grieving, sorrowful, sorrowing, mourning, anguished, distressed, desolate, devastated, despairing, inconsolable, disconsolate, downcast, down, downhearted, dejected, crestfallen, cheerless, depressed, pessimistic, melancholy, morose, gloomy, glum, mournful, funereal, doleful, dismal, forlorn, woeful, woebegone, abject, low-spirited, long-faced;

  • informal: blue, down in the mouth, down in the dumps;
  • literary: dolorous.
  • ANTONYMS: cheerful.

5 black humor: cynical, sick, macabre, weird, unhealthy, ghoulish, morbid, perverted, gruesome, sadistic, cruel, offensive.

6 Rory shot her a black look: angry, cross, annoyed, irate, vexed, irritated, exasperated, indignant, aggrieved, irked, piqued, displeased, provoked, galled, resentful, irascible, bad-tempered, tetchy, testy, crabby, waspish, dirty, filthy, furious, outraged; threatening, menacing, unfriendly, aggressive, belligerent, hostile, antagonistic, evil, evil-intentioned, wicked, nasty, hate-filled, bitter, acrimonious, malevolent, malicious, malignant, malign, venomous, poisonous, vitriolic, vindictive;

British

  • informal: shirty, stroppy, narky, ratty, eggy;
  • literary: malefic, maleficent.
  • ANTONYMS: pleasant, friendly.

TERMS & PHRASES:

“blackmail” (noun)

he was accused of blackmail: extortion; informal hush money; formal exaction. (verb) 1 he was blackmailing the murderer: extort money from, threaten; informal demand hush money from. 2 she blackmailed me to work for her: coerce, pressurize, pressure, force; informal lean on, put the screws on, twist someone’s arm.

“in the black”

7 the company’s in the black again: in credit, in funds, debt-free, out of debt, solvent, financially sound, able to pay one’s debts, creditworthy, of good financial standing, solid, secure, profit-making, profitable;

  • rare: unindebted.
  • ANTONYMS: in debt.

“black and white”

1 a black-and-white picture: monochrome, greyscale.

  • ANTONYMS: color.

2 I wish to see the proposals in black and white: in print, printed, written down, set down, on paper, committed to paper, recorded, on record, documented, clearly/plainly/explicitly defined.

  • ANTONYMS: spoken.

3 they tend to talk around the subject instead of making black-and-white statements: categorical, unequivocal, absolute, uncompromising, unconditional, unqualified, unambiguous, clear, clear-cut, positive, straightforward, definite, definitive; simplistic, shallow, pat, glib, jejune, naive.

  • ANTONYMS: equivocal.

4 children think in black and white, good and bad: in absolute terms, unequivocally, without shades of grey, categorically, uncompromisingly, unconditionally, unambiguously, clearly, positively, straightforwardly, definitely, definitively; simplistically, shallowly, patly, glibly, jejunely, naively.

  • ANTONYMS: equivocally.

(verb)

1 the steps of the houses were neatly blacked: painted black. (See blacken.)

2 he broke his nose and blacked his eye: bruise, contuse; hit, punch, injure; discolor.

3 British dated: trade union members blacked the work: boycott, embargo, put/place an embargo on, ban, bar, proscribe.

TERMS & PHRASES

“black out”

  • the pain hit him and he blacked out: faint, lose consciousness, pass out, collapse, keel over;
  • — informal: flake out, conk out, go out;
  • — literary: swoon.

“black something out”

1 the city was blacked out as an air-raid precaution): darken, make dark/darker, shade, turn off the lights in; keep the light out of.

2 the report on the incident has over 200 pages blacked out: censor, suppress, redact, withhold, cover up, hide, conceal, obscure, veil, draw/pull a veil over, hush up, sweep under the carpet, whitewash.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT WORD

Black

  • Black has been used to refer to African peoples and their descendants since the 14th century, and has been in continuous use ever since. Other terms have enjoyed prominence too: in the US colored was the term adopted in preference by emancipated slaves following the American Civil War, and colored was itself superseded in the US in the early 20th century by Negro as the term preferred by Black American campaigners. In Britain, on the other hand, colored was the most widely used and accepted term in the 1950s and early 1960s. With the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, Black was adopted in the US to signify a sense of racial pride, and it is the usual word in Britain today. In the US African American is the currently accepted term, which first became prominent in the late 1980s.

WORD LINKS

  • melan-
  • related prefix, as in melanin, Melanesia

SOURCE: OXFORD DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH

So the next time you hear “dark” and “black” used as metaphores for something else, ask the speaker, ask yourself: what do you actually mean to say, literally?

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Adoyo

ADOYO is a storyteller, musician and artist who finds happiness when drawing, playing the piano, and listening to stories.