Black and White

​First, some words about the terminology herein…

Regarding the spelling of the word “color”… I apologize in advance to those whose local dialect insists upon it being written as “colour”. My birthplace-biased opinion is that it looks and sounds perfectly fine without the superfluous “u”. And… I am quite drawn to the greater symmetry in the word “color”.

Most people diagnosed as “colorblind” actually see a moderately colorful world. Technically, we are “color-deficient”. To varying degrees, we struggle to distinguish between certain colors. Most of us are not blind to all colors. However, when a passenger in my car tells me to turn right, just past the blue car, the fact that I can see blue under certain ideal conditions does not change the fact that I am completely blind as to where I have been instructed to turn. So, I’m mostly sticking with “colorblind”, because that is how it feels.

The majority of colorblind people face significant obstacles, the most universal and obvious being our often-humorous inability to match clothing. Among the color deficient, I experience the world’s visual exuberance on an even flatter plane, being almost, but not quite, completely colorblind.

I have been thoroughly tested by many specialists over the years. While some were eventually able to classify my deficiency, I pretty much failed every test… or that’s what it felt like.

One such test… pretty much a method of torture for the colorblind… consists of ordering fifteen colored discs by similarity along a line. There are different sets of these discs. They are intended to determine both the type and intensity of colorblindness to a level well beyond the more common dot tests. Each time a tray of the unordered discs was laid out in front of me I would say, “They all look the same to me.” The doctor would smile at what he assumed to be a joke, but was most certainly not a joke, because they indeed looked quite similar to him too.

Upon returning to see the results of my sincere attempts to create order from this chaos, I could tell that he was, in equal measure, impressed and chagrined by the complete lack of any pattern whatsoever. I imagined his thoughts… something like, “Come on! At least make an effort. What use am I if you don’t at least create a modicum of orderly divergence for me to interpret?”

In scientific terms, I have tritanopia. This is a rare form of color deficiency. The estimates vary, but this condition affects somewhere between one in fifty thousand and one in a million people. Whereas most people, including those labeled as colorblind, have three types of cones, roughly correlated to the perception of red, green, and blue, I have only two types.

Being a dichromat puts me in the company of most mammals, but out of the company of many primates, including homo sapiens. I shouldn’t feel overly deprived, as many birds, reptiles, and fish have four types of cones. The mantis shrimp and some butterflies possess twelve types. More isn’t necessarily better, but having fewer than most humans tends to result in a multitude of awkward moments.

On annual week-long childhood visits to my father in San Diego, he would often work during the days, so the TV was my frequent companion. On one such visit, he came up to me while I was watching a program and said, “Oh… and I’m really sorry about the TV. It’s all we have.” I was perplexed by his apology, “What’s wrong with this one? It’s fine.” He responded quizzically, “Well… you mean… besides being a black-and-white TV.” I vividly remember seeing surprise ever so slowly replace skepticism on his face, as he came to realize that I seriously had no idea that I hadn’t been watching a color TV all week.

My mind is quite used to projecting assumed colors onto gray, based upon a lifetime of shade, context, and pattern recognition. I’m only consciously aware of color when it is large in area, extremely saturated, not green, and well lit. The rest of the time, I am oblivious to it. I see only enough color to know what I’m missing.

Color blindness is a seemingly rather mundane sensory limitation. It is quite common, supposedly affecting about one in twelve men, and one in two hundred women. And, there are so many more obviously debilitating deficiencies. Most colorblind people will state that it has little effect on their lives, other than creating humorous situations now and then. However, for many, this invisible affliction is more subversive than we are consciously aware. It can limit one’s choices and transform one’s hopes into disappointments.

These ramblings represent examples of wants and desires, stimulated by the thrill of discovery and promise, then stifled by a seemingly rather mundane sensory limitation.

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