Thoughts on David Batchelor's "Chromophobia" (2000)

Updated: Sep 11, 2018

This is an interesting text because most of it infuriates me, but I agree with a good bit of it in that it makes logical points in the mess of it all. It takes a long while --albeit building up to it-- to finally distinguish and establish white as a color (chapter one) versus whiteness as a concept (chapter two). However, throughout the first two chapters, he speaks of them almost interchangeably in social and almost, if not latently, racial context. He says “color has been systemically marginalized” similar to how one would speak racially of communities of color and here, “color had to be contained and subordinated -- like a woman” blatantly addressing gender (page 22-23). It continues on with phrases like “color is under fixed laws” in my mind, speaking to how people of color are under much stricter scrutinization under the law, and color is “low in the order of nature” or the order of how society has ranked race and ethnicity under whiteness (page 28).


At a point Batchelor loses my trust, exposing himself as an unreliable narrator. When giving a synopsis of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), he neglects to mention the ethnicity of a white American character with his descriptor, after just mentioning the ethnicities (Korean; African American) of the previous two characters with their descriptors. This shows a bias in his view of color, or whiteness, by deeming the white American male as the norm, thus proclaiming whiteness as the norm and everything and everyone else as the other. This was immediately problematic to me as a black woman, but could have easily been overlooked by anyone other than a white American.


He speaks of how color theorist has associated color with “ruination” which made me think of how that is portrayed institutionally in America. Schools, corporations, museums, etc. are afraid of too much color -- or diversity-- with the mindset of preserving the safe dominance of whiteness, fearing its inevitable result in “disorder”. This has been my long standing issue with color theory. Within the very first pages of the first chapter, Batchelor establishes the color white as a thing that “repels [the] inferior and “[strips] bare and [makes] pure” (page 10). As long as this is engrained in the minds of society as large, we will always have racial discourse about the imbalance of power --no matter how much we discuss the power (and monetary) dynamics willed and passed on by slavery.


One very useful and relevant discourse of color, yet still problematic, was around Le Corbusier and Amedee Ozenfant’s 1920’s “manifesto for painting” Purism. Batchelor says it is littered with words such as “logic, order, control, constant, certainty, severe, system, fixed, universal, and mathematical” (page 48). This combination of words almost directly aligns with the word map I’ve built around the word “order” in relation to nature and organized religion. It’s interesting to see how these overlap, and I’m almost convinced to read Purism despite how excruciating it will be to sit through another defamation of color.