Lost in a world of red and green

Color-blind males as a neglected minority

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist

As I read about the fires raging across the western states, I’m reminded of my three years on “hot shot” crews in the late 1960s. One June day on Oregon’s Rogue River National Forest our crew was digging a practice fire line. I was the sawyer, and my job was to cut down trees that had been marked with red ribbons.

As the top male on the crew I could not admit that I could not see the ribbons, blending in with green trees through my color-blind eyes, so I merrily sawed my own path through the forest.  

The crew boss tapped me on the shoulder and shouted, “What in hell are you doing?” I had to admit to my visual handicap, and we agreed that he would mark trees with yellow ribbons from then on.

I had been aware of my color blindness since the fourth grade, when my teacher held me after class for coloring the oceans purple during a geography lesson. 

My teacher called my mother and complained about my insubordination, and the next day my condition, along with my brother’s, was confirmed by an optometrist. My maternal uncle was also color blind, the condition being carried as a recessive gene on the mother’s side.

In August 1966, I was hitchhiking from Denmark to Norway and a trucker picked me up on the Swedish West Coast. Because of my unique color vision, I was able to point out something he had never seen before: camouflaged gun emplacements on regular intervals all along the coast.

My disability is mostly a harmless one. Wearing green socks instead of the brown ones I thought I put on was a great conservation starter. More seriously, I can’t tell the difference between the red and yellow traffic light, and I simply guess when driving alone faced with the choice between flashing red and yellow.  Furthermore, the green traffic light is the same color to me as any street lamp.  

Why can’t all greens be like the grass green that I desperately use as the perceptual match for that confusing color? I’ve also come to the conclusion that all these shades of color with fancy names are nothing but a conspiracy against us poor color-blind souls. Sometimes I like to be ornery and identify something as “chartreuse,” even though I have only a vague idea what that color looks like. 

In addition to being unsafe with flashing red and yellow, the red used as a warning light on appliances and equipment does not stand out to us who have defective red receptors in our retinas.  I’m constantly leaving on stove burners, and I can only guess when my batteries are charged.  

Scientists at Johns Hopkins have genetically modified mice, which, along with many other species, naturally have only the blue and green receptors that color blind humans do. They have successfully inserted the red receptor gene into their subjects and they are now able to able to perceive red and green in the “normal” way.

This procedure is of course a long way off for humans, but glasses are now available to make the contrasts between red, green, and the other colors more distinct. At enchroma.com the folks there predict a 75-percent success rate with my specific color blindness.

I took Enchroma’s color blind test, and I found that I have moderate “protanomaly.” It is described as a condition “in which the red cones do not detect enough red and are too sensitive to greens, yellows, and oranges. As a result, greens, yellows, oranges, reds, and browns may appear similar, especially in low light. It can also be difficult to tell the difference between blues and purples, or pinks and grays.” That’s me to a tee.

Biologists believe that tri-pigment color vision evolved in primates in order for them to choose ripe fruit, and for males to perceive the red rumps of their females in heat. 

In a culture where the genitals are covered, color-blind males may also miss the flush of red in the face of females who are attracted to them. No wonder I did not have that many girlfriends!

I always tell people not to feel sorry for me, and I assure them that I still see my own colored world. I just wish that industrial engineers would think twice before they, once again, choose red as a warning light. It sends no special message to five percent of the male population. 

Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.  He can be contacted at [email protected]

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