Our theme for the month of February is “color.”
Red is my favorite color, which puts me in the minority in the United States, according to the first thing that came up on Google. People around the world prefer blue by a large margin. I’m here to tell you you’re all wrong.
Red is a powerhouse. It shouts its presence and pulls your attention. It is the color of blood, of fire, of warning, but also of roses, of blushing, of sunsets.
The color’s pull is ancient. Hiking in Utah with friends, we saw copper-red handprints more than a thousand years old. Anthropologists say two benchmarks of human evolution are the making of tools and the wearing of red dye. We have been coloring ourselves since we have been ourselves, and mostly we have been coloring ourselves red.
Across time and culture, red is arguably the most universal color. Fall with me down the rabbit hole of how language changes the way we see color, dwell with me on the idea that the ancient Greeks may not have even seen blue, strain your eyes with me trying to spot the shades of green our language doesn’t allow us to see, and you’ll start to appreciate how in all this red is one of the few constants.
Some cultures have no words for colors. Some only have words for “dark” and “light.” If there’s a word for a third color, anthropologists find, it’s always red. Yellow, green, and even blue, the favorite, trail behind, occurring in far fewer vocabularies.
How much do we love red? We crush rocks for it. We smash bugs for it, 70,000 per pound of dye. Have you heard of cochineal beetles? The Inca discovered them, and they were part of what the Spanish stole, sending seventy-two tons of the dye back to Spain in just one year, ten billion insects crushed to powder for fashionable skirts and cardinals’ robes.
We all see the world differently, through the lenses of our language, geography, culture, and personal experiences. But in chili peppers and stop signs, poison dart frogs and red tape, we seem to have settled into something of a common idea about the meaning of this color. There’s something to be said for that.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).