The Menlo Roundtable

Investigating Whiteness: A Dive into its Cultural, Literary and Political History in the United States

If black is the absence of color, then what is white? We know white reflects color, but scientifically, it’s the combination of the whole color spectrum.

Writers have dedicated a great many pages to the color, which, despite its inclusion of all others, is innately associated with purity. In Herman Melville’s American classic Moby Dick, Ishmael, a crew member on a the whale-bound boat, pontificates on the eerie nature of the “whiteness” of the whale, which causes man to be so obsessed with its downfall, for a whole chapter. While Ishmael acknowledges the positive connotations associated with the color, whether white man’s supremacy over nature or the robes of a priest, he presses on that the underlying nature of white strikes a fear into men’s hearts. Ishmael gestures to white water and vast, snowy expanses of the Arctic Ocean, which so terrify the crew members, as proof of the color’s duplicitous nature. White, he says, “calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul” of all peoples because of its inclusion of all colors, and conversely its seeming exclusion of all colors, conjures up human fear of nonexistence and thus atheism. In the blankness of white, people see the vast unknown.