HALFWAY THROUGH the colorblindness test, Dr. Malvin Krinn closed his little book of red, green and gray dots. He looked me straight in my otherwise normal eyes and said: "That's enough. You're colorblind. Very colorblind."
I had suspected as much for years. There's my history of buying garish clothing that always has to be returned. There are the snickers I get when someone in a crowd is identified as "the one in the green shirt" -- I point about 100 feet in the wrong direction. There is even my friend Yamashita, a world-traveled photographer, who rolls around on the ground laughing when we're journeying together and I have to ask him what color an exotic red plant is.
The evidence is incontrovertible: I am either an anomalous trichromat, a dichromatic protanope, or maybe a deuteranope (see box). I am, in short, red-green colorblind, officially and incurably. And, if you're male, the odds are astonishingly high that maybe you are, too.
Colorblindness affects males about 20 times more frequently than females. Nearly 10 percent of American men and boys are wandering around at any given moment wondering if their socks match, as against a trifling six-tenths of 1 percent of the girls and women.
Reason: colorblindness is a genetically inherited, sex-linked, X-carried affliction. A recessive colorblind gene is delivered by the X chromosome. Women have two of these, so a good one (dominant gene) offsets a bad one. Men, providers of the renowned Y chromosome, are stuck with a single X chromosome (from their mothers); if it has the recessive gene for colorblindness, you've got it. Start asking for help at the haberdasher's.
This pattern -- women as carriers, men as colorblind -- means generally that colorblindness appears in every other male generation, passed through the female line. My brother is colorblind; my father is not. Neither was my mother, but she was obviously the carrier; her father must have been colorblind. My sons are not colorblind. If I had a daughter, however, she would be a carrier, and her sons would have a 50 percent likelihood of being colorblind. Sort of a zigzag shot through the family tree.
(Baldness, by the way, is passed on by women in almost the same way. Genetic revenge, you might call it, for millennia of chauvinism.)
For a female to come up with unmatched socks requires that a colorblind male marry a female carrier, which is so rare as to be negligible (or six-tenths of 1 percent). Ever meet a colorblind woman? Ever meet a woman who even thought you, a normally sighted male, really knew what colors were all about?
I have this theory, unsupported by the findings of science, that women are born with an extra dose of color vision. It would be part of their more-sensitive-than-men department, the whole right-brain thing. Talking to the experts in color vision has completely undermined my thesis, but then maybe they spend too much time with their instruments and not enough with some of the women I know, who claim there is no such thing as a man with real color vision.
"All men are colorblind," says a woman I know with otherwise progressive views on many subjects. She has higher education and espouses antisexist politics. "And they're deaf, too," she adds for good measure, "but they won't admit it." (Sexism, I've learned, is when men generalize about women, not the other way around.)
"Men have to be told what to wear," says Carole Jackson, bestselling author of Color Me Beautiful and its sequel, Color for Men. "Men don't understand the difference between business colors and sports colors," she continues, pleasantly patronizing. "If one of our consultants says, 'Here's your red,' the man says, 'I can't wear a red suit to work!' He doesn't understand we're talking about red sports clothes. So we start off with business colors first, then we say, 'Now we're going to do your sports colors.' toward the adult equivalent of kindergartenguidance.
But who's to quarrel? I certainly cannot defend the gender from behind my pair of dichromatic eyes. After all, somewhere among my 7 million cones -- the little nubs on the retina that do most of the seeing and all of the color discrimination -- there is a severe lack of red or green pigment. The pigments are what make all those off-shades and earth tones so plain for everyone else to see. I can't even see the LED digital clock on my dresser in daylight; its red numerals just fade away for me until the room is dark. Red warning labels on clothes have to be read with a magnifying glass. They're designed to jump out at the reader; for me, they go the other way.
Oh, before you ask, the answer is, yes, we dichromats can read the traffic lights. (Have you guessed that this is the question we get most tired of answering?) Red's up and green's down -- though the green light looks white to us. I have recently learned that there is a scientific reason for this. A good soul, maybe the only civil servant in history who ever gave colorblind people a second (or even a first) thought, once had the traffic lights of America color-corrected for us. The late Dean Judd, a color physicist at the National Bureau of Standards, managed in the 1940s to persuade most cities and villages that red should go on top and that the colors should be standardized.
The good Dr. Judd not only got the reds and greens lined up right, but he figured out how to make them more distinct to the red-green color-impaired person. The green light was made more bluish and the red more orangish. The result is that the red light looks red to me, but somewhat dim, especially in bright light or against a field of green trees. But the green light looks white, which is exactly what Judd intended. The research shows, I proudly add, that colorblind people have excellent driving records.
On the subject of good records, it has been pointed out that red-green color blindness has it advantages: deuteranomalous trichromats, because of their shifted color vision, were used in World War II to "see through" certain forms of camouflage. That's about where the advantages of color blindness end, except for being the momentary conversation piece at a party when people find out you're colorblind.
"What color is this?" someone will ask, pointing to the most obviously blue shirt in the room. "Do you see everything in black and white?"
The answer is no, only monochro- mats do that, and they are extremely rare, about 1 in 40,000 men (as opposed to 1 in 10 with red-green colorblindness). And sure, we see blue very well indeed, so well that we often confuse purple for blue (can't see the red that turns blue to violet).
"I went to Bloomingdale's the other day to buy a basic blue oxford shirt," says Edmund Burke, the colorblind production manager of a Washington advertising agency. "The next day everyone complimented me on my purple shirt. Now I've decided I like purple."
This is the kind of thing that sets us apart as minor freaks in a color-conscious world. You "normals," as the color scientists insist on calling everyone else, see more than 1 million separate hues in the color spectrum; we see a fraction of that, perhaps a mere hundred thousand or so.
Edmund Burke is proof of the rule that colorblindness is a misnomer; we are merely color impaired for a small percentage of the spectrum. Burke's main job is overseeing four-color advertising printing. "I can handle any job unless it has a lot of soft pastels," he says. "When I go to the printer for a press check, I take someone along." Recently his assistant caught an error in a soft tone of gray just before 60,000 brochures were to be run for Bell Atlantic. "He saw it was two shades off from one end of the page to the other," says Burke. "I couldn't see it at all."
There are, of course, some jobs we just can't get, such as becoming jet pilots or ship's officers; you must see red and green to know port from starboard. It is also tough to work in color-coded electronics, nuclear power plants, paint factories or in law enforcement, where your courtroom testimony might easily be impeached ("the perpetrator wore a red shirt -- or maybe it was green").
Some color researchers now believe that "field size" -- how big the colorful object is -- matters, too. "If it's over 10 degrees of your field of vision, you may be able to distinguish the reds and greens," says Dr. Michael E. Breton, a psychophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania's Sheie Eye Institute. Breton ought to know; he's a full-fledged dichromat.
of field size the old-fashioned way: by accident. When he took up graduate studies with color scholars Vivian Smith and Joel Pokorny at the University of Chicago, he "walked right in and identified almost every color in their offices," says Breton. "They couldn't believe it. A dichromat always fails the tests. But the tests are done with small objects. So we began investigating field size."
Breton defends his work as a color specialist with scientific astuteness: "You don't have to be color-normal to study color. You just have to trust your instruments."
Skeeter Hagler, a Pulitzer Prize- Dallas Times Herald, says his colorblindness does not really affect his pictures. "God invented the automatic camera to get the colors right," he says. But it sometimes costs him the good will of his colleagues. "Whenever we shoot the Dallas Cowboys' out-of-town games, we have to transmit color right after the game. This means you have to have prints. And the colors have to be right. I can't tell under the enlarger if I need more magenta or what. I used to send 'em some real goofy-looking prints, like orange. So they never send me out by myself. The guys I go with always get p.o.'d because they have to do all the dirty work. Nobody wants to go with me." conservative colors; navy blue is accepted, but compared with New York or The Coast, everything else is
supposed to be
bureaucratically dull. This
does not make life any easier
for former White House press
secretary Ron Nessen, now
vice president of the Mutual
Radio Network; colorblind
Nessen admits to owning
"probably the largest
collection of green suits in the
world, and I thought they
were gray, brown and tan
when I bought them."
turned-novelist Les Whitten
more harrowing moments
than investigative reporting.
"I covered John F. Kennedy's
funeral. All the women were
wearing black, but in off-
shades of purple and fuchsia.
And that's what everybody
was interested in! It was the
biggest crisis of my
newspaper career! Thank
God for (what was then
called) the women's press
But this is minor stuff
compared with the
photojournalist -- a well-
known member of the
national press corps -- who
has kept his affliction to
himself even while shifting
from black-and-white to
predominantly color pictures
in recent years. "How did you
find out I'm colorblind?" he
quavered when I called. "I'm
still in the closet."