Long before the word ‘colorblind’ became a saccharine euphemism for ‘not racist’, it described a person’s inability to see certain colors because the cones in their retinas do not register the complete spectrum of wavelengths entering the eye. It’s a genetic condition that affects up to 5% of all men, but few women. There are several varieties of colorblindness with technical names like protanamoly and deuteranamoly, but most people refer to the three most prevalent types as red/green, green/brown, and blue/purple: the predominant color confusion inferior cones induce.
Colorblindness is determined by a simple visual test. A single digit, composed of multiple dots of the same color, floats in a field of differently colored dots. Or so I’m told. I’ve never seen a red ‘3’ or green ‘6” or blue ‘7’ pop out when I study that dizzy array. I think the test folks are pulling my leg; they just chuckle and tell me I’m colorblind, and I’ve got it bad.
“What color is this?” “What color is that?” As soon as people learn I’m colorblind they point to their blouse or a painted wall. If I misname the color, they laugh. If I guess correctly, they doubt my veracity. Colorblindness does not turn the world black and white; it simply renders it in a more limited palette. It cowers in the murky blends of the color spectrum; it thrives in texture and shadow. I can match eight shiny crayons in a Crayola pack with their conventional names, but I cannot articulate the yarns of an autumn sweater.
There is a semantic element to colorblindness – if I see green and call it green, then its green, at least to me. But when so many other people call the same object red, I must shrug and yield to the majority. Science reveals that colorblind people see a less vibrant world. Anecdotal evidence supports that finding. Often, when I point out a color I like, my companion will recoil, “Its so garish.”
My favorite painter is Mark Rothko, whose saturated colors soothe me while Seurat’s pointillism leaves me cold. I love artificial brilliance: carpets in Chinese restaurants, maraschino cherries, The Lego Movie. All those bright yellow heads! No one is colorblind to yellow. We all see the sun with equal radiance.
As a fledging architect, colorblindness was my burden. I passed color theory by actually reading the theory, since I could not trust my eye to discern desired relationships. When a senior partner at my first job demonstrated how he wanted me to render a drawing, I was too insecure to admit that, to my eyes, his subtle earth tones looked like mud. Instead of paying attention to his line weight and hand technique, I resorted to color-by-number. I scribbled down the Prismacolor designation of each pencil he used. No way could I differentiate Burnt Umber from Terra Cotta by looking at the lead.
Over time, as my confidence grew, I developed a distinctive rendering style: all grey tones. I divulged my condition to clients, and got exempted from those pesky discussions of interior finish selection. I could focus on form.
I got used to the inevitable questions when someone discovered my so-called disability. Colorblindness is a conversation starter; people find satisfaction in being more color literate than me. As disabilities go, colorblindness is minor, yet it’s important for each of us to embrace our shortcomings; so integral to our humanity.
Just last week, when the grocery checkout mentioned the colors of the apples I bought, I told her that, being colorblind, they all looked the same to me. This triggered the usual exchange. Until she said, “Maybe the world is brighter for you in other ways, just not through color.” As transactional conversations go, it was stellar.
I used to consider colorblindness a deficiency. Then I realized it was just a different way of being. Now I see its advantages. It’s a unique perspective I can share with others, one that can lead to a deeper connection. Maybe the politically correct use of the term ‘colorblind’ is not so remote from its genetic origin after all.