The White Orca Effect Meets the Black Dog Syndrome

July 17, 2012

“Blak Lantern” Henry Richards

Preface: Through serendipity, I was writing of animals about the same time that Dan Leichty wrote his recent piece “Of Pets and Humans”. This piece, like Dan’s, deals with the psychological significance of animals to how humans view themselves.

The Denial File explores what we can’t think about. Sometimes, when we want to acknowledge a collusion to not acknowledge something, we speak of the elephant in the room. Have you ever thought about where that comes from? One claimed origin is Mark Twain’s short story The “Stolen White Elephant.” [No, this is not the Lakoff’s white elephant of try not to think about white elephant fame] Twain’s story goes like this: An official responsible for delivery of a divine white elephant, sent as a gift to the Queen of England from the King of Siam, secures the great beast in a the basement of a huge warehouse in New Jersey, hoping to restore its strength and majestic appearance before it is again subjected to the privations of a sea voyage to England. [Twain never explains why it is sensible to stop off in New Jersey when you are on your way from Siam to the UK, but then people, including people living in Jersey, are at a loss for what they are doing there, so I shouldn’t expect Twain to explain it.] The next day the official is mortified to learn that someone has stolen the precious elephant. Before the detectives assigned to the case can make progress, a series of news headlines decry a wave of murder and mayhem in the city,  and mass destruction of livestock and property across the NJ countryside, all accompanied by sightings of an ill-tempered white elephant, of demonic proportions. The situation escalates daily. an international incident is imminent, and the chief of police sets up a command post in the very place from which the elephant was stolen. Sixty detectives are placed on full-time duty, night and day, ordered to sleep as best as they could on mattresses thrown on command center’s cold concrete floor.

The cops rack their brains in every conceivable way, because, duty aside, the King of Siam has set a reward of $50,000 for the man who recovers the elephant.  After a few days, the colonial official arrives breathless at the command post to be informed personally by the chief that the case was resolved. What he learns causes him to swoon, but he is soon revived with smelling salts, and the chief repeats the unbearable reality. According to the chief, a rookie detective had been playing cards with a circle of his fellows, just beyond the bustle of the ongoing investigation. Bushed, cramped, and more than a little claustrophobic, the rookie launched out in the dark to stretch his legs and light a pipe just a score of paces beyond the card game, where he almost immediately tripped over something like a leather-padded log and fell face first into the massive, cold and clammy flesh of the divine being lying lifeless on the basement floor.

Becker fans will appreciate the links between denial, death, money, and the quest for meaning through accomplishment (and cash) all wrapped up in Twain’s little tale. The tale also has imbedded in it a value that you aren’t supposed to think too much about, namely, the importance of white animals to the symbolic systems of a good part of the world. White animals are given unusual reverence, even when you rule out unicorns and Moby Dick and stick only with animals living in the material world.

For example, white killer whales, politely known as orcas (or orcae, if you prefer Latinate forms of English plurals, I don’t. I like “this data”, but I must admit I prefer “these data” “these datas”, but I digress). In April of this year, MSNBC reported on an all-white orca sighted by a Russian marine research team, which dubbed him” Iceberg”. Erich Hoyt, co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project, was quoted as saying, “In many ways, Iceberg is a symbol of all that is pure, wild and extraordinarily exciting about what is out there in the ocean waiting to be discovered.” National Geographic described Iceberg as “handsome” and noted that although most orcas eat other mammals (such as cute little seal pups)  Iceberg’s pod ate only fish. They are –one supposes–a pod of the Brahmin caste among orcas.  At first, Iceberg was touted as the first ever sighted white orca, but later reports qualified that he was the first mature adult sighted with this coloration, and that the team had observed two immature white orcas in previous years.   Although the “news” was two years old (the sighting being in 2010), a photo of Iceberg, swimming with his humane pod, took the first half of the front page of the Seattle Times under the headline: “White orca: A whale of tale.” The accompanying article quoted co-director Hoyt: “If nothing else,” Hoyt said, “the team hopes to see and take more pictures of this mystical-looking creature that people already seem to be identifying with as a symbol of wild nature.” He went on with greater enthusiasm: “Killer whales are so starkly black that when you see an all-white one it’s pretty amazing,” Hoyt said. “It’s a moment for celebration. It’s a strikingly beautiful animal.” All well and good, I thought, since all of these behemoths have a sublime beauty, but unless my memory betrays me, orcas prototypically have three white or gray-colored  patches covering  at least a quarter of their skin surface.  I wondered how an observational scientist could describe orca as “starkly black” since like penguins they are starkly black and white, due largely to the stark contrast.

Seattle area radio jockey, Will Johnson wrote: “I don’t know why, but I am fascinated with this story. [emphasis not in the original] An all white male Orca whale was spotted off the coast of Russia in the Pacific. The other day when the story came out, it wasn’t clear WHEN the all white Orca [sic] was spotted. Today, the Seattle Times had an extended story about it and as it turns out, the spotting was in the summer of 2010. Scientists kept the information because they wanted to do more research before releasing the pictures. 2 years? Come on! This is exciting news that should have been released immediately. I think people are really fascinated, as I am, about these creatures.

In reading the article, scientists said an all-white Orca [sic] is extremely rare. First, it’s a rare occurrence when one is born. Second, it’s even MORE unusual for one to make it to adulthood — because their natural camouflage is not there and, as a young whale, they would be more apt to be eaten by a predator, like a great white shark.”[Like the mammalian Orca, this fish often gets its name capitalized, in defiance of the rules of capitalization in english).

A reader’s comment to the Iceberg story posted on the CBS news website stated: “If the NAACP doesn’t complain about this finding, they will surely insist on a search for an all-black orca!” In urban vernacular I’d have to say “It’s mighty white up in here”. But in all fairness, we all know that any mean-spirited thing can and will be said on the internet, and in the spirit of universalism, I was beginning to wonder whether as an African American, I was actually being the “too sensitive” person that many whites describe when a black person brings up issues related to race that are in any way subtle or troublesome. [Did you wonder about the conceptual issue reflected in the capitalization, or lack of it, in the previous sentence?] Also, I wondered if the orca’s association with death would cause the thought of a white orca to play havoc with our dissonance reduction system. The god Orcus was the Roman version of the Greek Hades, god of the underworld, and the Romans thought of these magnificent animals as belonging to Orcas. Oddly, many people prefer the name orca to killer whale, wanting to avoid the obvious connotation of violence and death in the latter, but to do so is to escape to a word that means much the same thing. A white orca could create the dissonance of whether white or black is associated with death, a meme-conflict that appears to exist in many cultures.

While still repentant of my errant racial sensibilities–well just barely– I turned to my PBS channel to see the trailer for the TV documentary “Cloud,” and learned that: “In 1995, while filming wild horses in the mountains of Montana, Ginger Kathrens discovered a striking, almost pure white colt just hours after his birth. Kathrens named him Cloud. She feared that his distinctive coat would make him an obvious target for mountain lions; but he survived and Kathrens continued to follow him in his adventures. In Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies, this wild horse developed from a bumbling, unsteady colt into an adventurous, defiant youth.” Two additional episodes followed.

This was in April of this year. Then in May, PBS premiered the documentary series “The White Lions—the story of two remarkable and extremely rare white lion cubs on their journey to adulthood. Both are female, sisters born as white as snow in May 2009 in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Growing up on the savanna, they must overcome not only the same survival challenges that all young lion cubs must face, they must also overcome the threats their high visibility brings.” I had to see it; I was as fascinated as that radio jockey had been by the white Orca, but not by the lions, whose actual existence seemed simply inevitable, but by the behavior of PBS and the documentary creators. I had to see it.

The program was, of course, replete with anthropomorphisms and redundant superlatives used for these “very special lions. But I was surprised to hear them called “white youngsters,” and to hear repeatedly the epithet “white pride.” Only two of five members of the pride were pigment deficient. I suppose that the others were honorary whites, a term reserved in pre-liberation South Africa for educated Coloreds and East Asians. Anybody writing a documentary film script for a program filmed in Kruger National Park, South Africa should have had some degree of self-consciousness when they found themselves constantly using the term “white pride.” I imagine if I were to confront the script writer with the racial connotations of this epithet, he or she would state that it never entered their mind, meaning “Silly, Negro, you are being too sensitive. There were no humans filmed, so this documentary could not possibly imply anything about human racism.”  The script of “The White Lions” ends as follows: “A new chapter is now beginning for the white pride and the white sisters have a whole new life ahead. They are the first white lions to reach maturity in the wild in more than two decades. Their success so far has been remarkable; they began as scruffy little cubs and grew into fine lionesses. For the past two years they struggled to survive Kruger’s fierce wilderness and the challenges of their white coats. But they have had two amazing lionesses to look out for them, teaching them everything they know. Their futures will soon depend on their own abilities, their teamwork and their own wisdom. Will they be strong hunters raising their own cubs in years to come? The story of Kruger’s white lions has just begun.”

The common themes are obvious. White animals are special, wonderful, and starkly beautiful. They evoke an unexplainable fascination (in some folks).  They have to contend with the extra burden of whiteness (the white lion’s burden we might say) but are triumphant. There is probably no need to gloss over the obvious projections, most of which occupy the preconscious space between awareness and the unconscious where denial is easy whenever it is convenient, and spelling out those projections would only bore the reader. However, I am finding the absence of a scientific or historical literature on this topic fascinating. It appears to be one of the things people can’t think about for very long. The academic archives are silent on this topic. About the only thing I could find was the literature on the mythic or magical attributions to atypically white animals. This cultural theme was written about by Jung’s biographer,  Laurens Vander Post in his Dark Eye Over Africa, where he claimed the white color symbolism, or actually light versus dark color symbolism,  exists in virtually all cultures, and  virtually always is accompanied by a preference given to lighter skinned humans. His work wouldn’t pass as scientific nowadays. I was able to find one article that took a psychological approach relating racism as a projection of the animal nature. Its subject was the reluctance of African Americans to identify with the animal rights movement or at least to become members of organizations promoting such views.  But this article was speculative, had no hard data, and did not specifically deal with white people’s fascination with white animals. I also found a dissertation on racial symbolism of animals in Walt Disney productions, but still no data. Although clearly this white animal thing is selling newspapers and capturing viewers for PBS, I was not able to find one marketing study that seemed to be on point,  So I decided to do some informal research. You might want to do your own, or you might find yourself doing it inadvertently, after the phenomenon has been brought to your awareness. I decided to use as the data source the Sunday editions of NYT and the Seattle Times for the same Sunday in June. My method was to simply look for images of white animals: white animals anthropomorphized, or used as examples of the superlative, or special.  I found an interesting collection of them. One of the articles contained images I hadn’t thought of. The NYT reported a new version of Swan Lake by French choreographer Luc Petton opening at Théâtre National de Chaillot in Paris on June 6.  In this version, live swans participate on stage, and were integral to the training of the dancers, who mimic the animals movements and strive to be accepted by the birds as fellow swans.  According to NYT “In the first half [of the ballet] black swans appear in a river onstage meant to represent the Styx, and a dancer floats by like a cadaver”. And later: “Backstage the handlers must keep the black and white swans apart so they don’t tear each other to pieces. Undeterred, Mr. Petton is already planning his next work, with bats. “Now that’s rich in meaning,” he said, grinning. “That’s really loaded.” Yes it is loaded with the color symbolism of death and violence concretized in Mr. Petton’s consciousness.

So much for casual weekend research. Back in the archives, I could find only two lines of research in psychology that approach these unthinkable topics. The first line of research was social psychological research  using the concept of racial micro-aggression. [Sue, Capodilupo, & Holder (2008) Racial microaggressions in the life experiences of black Americans. Professional Psychology, Research and Practice, 39, 329-336.] Racial microaggressions are negative comments or acts toward people of color by whites that maintain race as a salient social category advantageous to white people. Acts and comments that constitute racial microaggressions may be deemed “politically incorrect” in many settings, which rather than eliminating them, may cause the microaggressions to become more subtle. This lionizing of white animals in the mass media, which feels to me like a bombardment of images advancing whiteness, could be described as what the researchers have called environmental microaggressions, because the images and expressed attitudes are just out there in the environment, like “Whites Only” signs used to be, or idioms such as white lies and black lies continue to be.

The second line of research has been called the Black Dog Syndrome. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, psychologist Stanley Coren was interested in the concern stated to him by shelter workers that black dogs had poorer chances of being adopted.  From these concerns he developed the hypothesis of a Black Dog Syndrome; that is a cultural or psychological bias toward viewing black dogs as more aggressive and less suitable as pets than lighter colored dogs.  Using photographs of dogs, he employed the usual standardization methods of psychology (a variety of dogs of different colors, but otherwise identical) and the usual obfuscations to avoid making his hypothesis patently obvious, and therefore something that could be consciously circumvented. His research design compared people’s impressions of black, brown, and yellow dog photographs. [Damn it! He left out the striking handsome white dog, and downgraded the “blond” dog to a mere yellow.] He tested sixty people on the UBC campus and reported his results in his Psychology Today column, “Canine Corner.” [He did not report on the age or ethnicity/race of his subjects]. He found a direct linear correlation between dog color and likability of appearance, perceived friendliness, likelihood of being a good pet, and aggressiveness. The black dog stimuli were rated as lowest on all but the last attribute, aggression, on which the black dog was rated as higher. On all four attributes the brown dog was intermediate in rating to the other two stimuli types. The average of difference between the black dog stimuli and the yellow dog stimuli was 1.65 On a 1 to 7 scale. Coren reported that all of these differences reached traditional statistical significance, indicating that they were meaningful differences.  Nevertheless, Coren was happy to report an anecdote of his being able to overcome this prejudice and win adoption a long time resident of the shelter, who happened to be black. He did this by renaming the black dog “Happy” and putting a bright colorful bandana around its neck.

To bring this lengthy post full circle, the elephant in the room is the white elephant of awareness, in this case, awareness about racial projections that are so constant and integral to popular thought that without knowing it, you are awash with images of white animals, cartoons in which the darker creatures are violent, where the “Creature From the Black Lagoon” is going to get your momma, and where little black dogs are more likely to be seen as unadoptable pets. On the last point, which addresses reality and not fantasy, the Humane Society of the United States estimates that 3 to 4 million pets are euthanized in animal shelters each year; many because they are unadoptable, that translates into black dogs being more likely to be euthanized because of their color. [No. Remember, I am just talking about dogs, not death row inmates]

For some readers, this topic will seem trivial or irrelevant. To me, it’s another example of awareness being its own punishment (and only potentially its own reward), a kind of mental white elephant, “a burdensome possession; creating more trouble than it is worth.” It is very exhausting to live in a world where the kind of thinking and culturally promoted unthinking behind such productions as “Cloud”, “The White Lions” etc. is so pervasive, and to know that to openly acknowledge the implied insult or assault is to be seen as being “overly sensitive.”  Trivial or not, to my knowledge this blog contribution is the first linkage of “the White Orca Syndrome” with microaggressions, or either with the “Black Dog Syndrome.”


  1. Thanks for summarizing this research and pointing out its significance. There is such a load of things to think about here! I am inclined to think that “light=good, dark=bad (danger)” is one of the basic metaphors Lakoff and Johnson outline in Philosophy in the Flesh, and is rooted in the fact that we cannot see well in the dark. If so, it is unlikely to change. But it is the application of this basic metaphor to skin color (hair in the case of the dog experiment) that is clearly false, misleading, counterproductive and subject to change. Thanks for taking this on!

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree that the light-dark archetype is permanently with us, related to the daylight, night cycle and the huge threat our ancestors faced from the big cats (not to mention snakes, etc,) at night. Let’s hope we can change the concrete generalization to differences among people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: