Jesus wears white. We’ve seen it in the movies. Sometimes it’s an off-white, sometimes a dazzling white, especially during the transfiguration when his clothes became white (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:3). But what color did he wear in daily life? Aren’t white robes in the gospel accounts usually reserved for angels? So why do we clothe Jesus in white when we picture him? Is it because to us it symbolizes his unblemished life?
Across the world, colors are an important way of expressing meaning. They help us to make sense of and organize our environment. They guide us through the joys and perils of life often triggering emotional responses.
In art and media, color has always been important. When black-and-white photography was invented it was not uncommon to put color in photos—and sometimes films—by hand. More recently, Technicolor and various digital technologies further add color to our lives.
Think about your daily life. What colors surround you? Why do you think they are there? How do you react to them? What do they mean to you? Depending on where you grew up and where you live, your response to such questions might be quite different.
Accordingly, white is not always “white.” While in Judeo-Christian tradition it stands for purity, in Hinduism it’s the color of mourning. What does it mean when Jesus wears white in the movies? Likewise, red is not always “red.” In many parts of the Western world red is the color of danger. In parts of Ghana it stands for mourning, while in parts of Cameroon it means royalty. Fetish priests often wear red in Nigeria movies. What do you make of Roman soldiers and their red clothes? Who are they really?
Thinking anthropologically about media means we need to pay attention to the use of colors and what they mean to different people from various sociocultural backgrounds. This is especially important for cross-cultural communication. When we consider using visual media in a place that is different from where it has been originally made, we need to think about how the potential audiences understand colors and how this may affect what media communicate to them.
Editor’s note: Johannes is an SIL anthropologist who shares his responsibilities with IMS as an anthropology consultant. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org