This week I learned that people who are colorblind, including my son, Lindell, think peanut butter is green. Of all the things that surprised me about this — including, how can something so clearly orange ever look green? — the part that shocked me the most was when I reflected back on how eagerly and voluntarily Lindell has always eaten what appears to him as a green sandwich.
Notice, I say that peanut butter is orange. That’s the way I see it. I hear that others see it as tan or brown. Google “color of peanut butter,” and you will be consumed by a hilarious rabbit hole of debate.
What else does my son think is green? I wondered.
Turns out, quite a bit.
We’ve known Lindell is colorblind for quite some time. Not until the peanut butter incident, however, did I realize just how differently he views the world. When he was just a toddler learning his colors, I noticed how Lindell would prefer to roll around on the floor than answer “What color is this?” when I pointed at a picture in a book. But I assumed this had more to do with him being the baby of the family — he’s always been a bit of a ham — than it did anything about the way he sees colors.
Even when I pointed at the letter B, however, Lindell would run away and say something like, “Oh, who knows! What does it matter?”
I realize now that he had learned to doubt his reality about everything, even which letter he saw, because of years of being told, “No, that’s purple, not blue.”
Then one day, when I was reading the book “Go, Dog, Go” to Lindell, he pointed at a dog on one of the last pages, the page with the “dog party” in a tree, and said, “What is that orange dog doing?”
There was no orange dog on the page.
“Point to the orange dog,” I said.
Lindell pointed to a green dog wearing a birthday hat and jumping out of a cannon. (Truly an odd thing for any colored dog to be doing.)
“What color is this one?” I said, pointing to another dog. “And this one?”
And so began Lindell’s life of people constantly trying to see his world by asking, “What does this look like to you?”
My brother is colorblind, and so is my maternal uncle. Indeed, the gene for colorblindness is passed down from the mother on an X chromosome, which is why it is exceedingly rare for women to be colorblind. A woman’s second X chromosome counteracts the defective one. Males, who only receive one X chromosome from the mother and a Y from their father, aren’t as lucky. Some studies estimate that 5 to 8 percent of men are colorblind, compared to 0.5 percent of women who inherit the trait.
A mother who carries the recessive trait has a 50 percent chance of passing it on to a son. My first two sons are not colorblind. Their youngest brother’s colorblindness has therefore provided years and hours of fascination.
“What color is the grass?”
“What color is this [purple] flower?”
“What color is your [light-green] shirt?”
Through the years, we’ve learned to predict how Lindell will perceive different colors. None of us, however, was prepared when Lindell announced that he doesn’t like “the chicken with the green coating.”
“What kind of chicken have you been eating?” Ford asked.
“The crunchy kind, like they have at restaurants,” he said.
That night I googled “chicken tenders look green” and through the rabbit hole of the internet stumbled onto a Reddit thread where dozens of colorblind people learned for the first time that peanut butter is not green. Some of the commenters, in fact, had believed for 30 or more years that peanut butter is green.
I texted my colorblind brother: “What color is peanut butter?”
I texted my colorblind uncle: “What color is peanut butter?”
The next morning, I asked Lindell: “What color is peanut butter?”
That’s when I realized that for going on 10 years I had been serving my son green chicken and green sandwiches.
On the other hand, Lindell was a little unsettled to learn that peanut butter is not green and that we’ve been eating orange sandwiches. But then he sort of panicked about not seeing the world the way we do.
“They have glasses for that,” my brother said, and he sent us a link to enchroma.com, a company that developed glasses to help surgeons but soon realized the glasses also correct colorblindness. Lindell was excited.
And then: “Unfortunately, they won’t work for us,” my brother said. Lindell’s and my brother’s type of colorblindness (“Strong Protan”) is only corrected by the glasses 30 percent of the time.
I felt a little bit sad — even slightly claustrophobic — for Lindell at first. There is no way to show him what we see and vice versa.
And yet, the next time I served Lindell a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he said, “I can’t believe you guys eat this when it looks orange.” And I realized, maybe it’s better if he never sees “correctly.” After you’ve learned to love green sandwiches, how can you ever go back?
Maine writer and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.