Is Black or White a Color?

Today’s topic of whether black or white is a color was chosen by Rebecca T at UT Austin. Samie L at University of King’s College, Halifax, NS suggested the topic of color as well. So today’s post will be a colorful one.

I initially approached Rebecca’s question in the scientific way. Namely, the first thing to ask is: What is color?

[via xkcd]

Color is just a visually-perceived difference between electromagnetic waves of different frequencies. White is the sum of all of the visible wavelengths. When a prism turns white light into a spectrum, it is merely separating the different frequencies of light. That’s how rainbows work, only they replace prisms with raindrops.

But is white actually a color? White is not defined by any particular frequency of light, so if every color must correspond to a frequency, then it is not one. Neither is black. Black is the absence of light. And the absence of light can’t have a frequency.

So according to physics, it seems the answer is no.

The question itself, however, seems useless if we are just looking at the physics of light. It is more appropriate to look at color from another viewpoint. In computer science, colors are usually defined as the sum of red, green, and blue values. Anyone who has tried to code a website is probably familiar with the hexadecimal color system, in which red is #ff0000, green is #00ff00, and blue is #0000ff. In this system, white and black are also colors, given by the codes #ffffff and #000000 respectively. So it seems to depend on our use of color. I’m not a physicist; I’m a student and a blogger. For all practical purposes, I consider black and white to be colors. What are your thoughts?

About Sean Li

A student at Cornell University.
This entry was posted in Art and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is Black or White a Color?

  1. Samie says:

    woot colour!

    Haha, well if I look at it in a hexidecimal way, I definitely think of black and white as colours. I’m also a moderator on a forum, so things in bbcode like [color=#ffffff] also count as colours. (I might also have an addiction to memorizing hexcodes, it’s fun times. #93ccea & #0abab5 are my favourites)

    Congrats on keeping up with your blogging every day — as you can see, I have failed miserably. xD

    Like this

  2. Tribe says:

    hi! came across your blog while looking around for ender’s shadow quotes (too lazy to search for my book) and then i cam across this…you might wanna look at the subtractive and additive theories of color heres a link (

    its always been a bit confusing if you think about it that white is basically the colors of the rainbow, but when you get to pigments and you start mixing the colors of the rainbow with paint you start getting black…probably 2 entirely different things that still gives me a headache, but anytime you can make the common person to understand always helps :)

    Like this

    • Sean Li says:

      Thanks. I am familiar that the paint perspective and the light perspective give two completely different final mixing colors (paint gives black, light gives white). This is because paint is doing color absorption rather than lumination. So from a physics perspective, I consider the “additive” color mixing to be more real than the “negative” color mixing, which I see as only a byproduct of the first. :D

      Like this

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