While the mainstream and Eurocentric colors of magic and witchcraft for clothing tend to be black or deep purples and other darker hues, in many Afro-diasporic traditions the most popular color to wear is white. If you are starting down the road of Santería / Lucumí, you’ll quickly notice that it’s considered better to try to wear white or at least lighter shades in general and absolutely mandatory to wear white during certain ceremonies or for periods of time after being initiated.
After being an iyawo from my elekes initiation into Lucumí and wearing white from head to toe for seven days, I’ve felt the ashe of wearing Obatala’s color and being intimately protected by it. So I want to share a bit about this practice in Orisha traditions and dive into a discussion about what it means and where it comes from.
On the surface, it might seem problematic in the same way that white is often seen as implicitly better or more sacred in many Eurocentric contexts. It’s true that white in Africana traditions does often stand for peace, cleansing, and protection, but in the Afrocentric context it’s not because of racist notions that white represents “good” while black is “evil.” Sometimes Eurocentric frameworks have caused misinterpretations and twisting around to bring those racist concepts into Afro-diasporic spaces, but that is not where the idea originated. Never once have I ever heard any of my spiritual elders say that “black” is bad or evil, and the color definitely plays its own sacred role in Orisha traditions.
As the color of the ikin (“palm nuts”) of Ifá divination, black (dudu in Yoruba language) is said to be the preferred color of the babalawo (Olupona 463). Olorisha and scholar Teresa Washington describes black as the source and container of iwa as the “origin and apex in the undiluted power of pure cosmic Blackness” (Washington 34). So it is not at all that this sacred color is seen as “bad,” but rather that it is not the right ashe to be wearing on one’s body because it contains and attracts all. When you need protection and want to repel unwanted energies away, a powerful container of all creation is not seen from the Yoruba perspective as the right color for that specific role.
White (funfun) is for cleansing and protection because it shares similarities with white light in a scientific sense as a combination of many wavelengths. The color white in Orisha traditions also “projects the properties of All” (Washington 57). There is a class of Orisha called orisha funfun (“white orishas”), including Iyanla, Odua, and Obatala, who are primarily represented by the color white and carry its associated meanings (Washington 95). Washington describes the orisha funfun as “funnel[ing] the blood of existence through the reflective properties and scientific principles of the hue white to imbue each person with a signature blend of iwa, ori, and ashe” (Washington 95).
Because white is seen as a projective color, it is strongly associated with cleansing and protection as the spiritual ashe of removing and reflecting away unwanted energies and influences. After some initiations into Orisha traditions, the new initiate becomes an iyawo, or a bride of the Orishas. The iyawo traditionally must wear white from head to toe so that they would be as protected as possible during that time since they are spiritually vulnerable. I can personally speak to the ashe that I felt while wearing only all white clothing every day when I was an iyawo.
Wearing white is also about the color’s connection to Obatala, who is probably the most famous and well-known of all the orisha funfun. His name means “Ruler of the White Cloth” across both Santería / Lucumí as well as West African Ifá / Isese tradition. Obatala’s close relationship with the color white relates to his traditional role as an Orisha of creation and maker of humanity (Washington 38). It is important to understand that his relationship with the color white definitely does not mean that he could ever be accurately depicted with white skin or that he is anything other than an African spirit (see image below for reference).
Obatala’s connection to the color of white (funfun) is a purely spiritual relationship that only exists within an Afrocentric context of the color’s meaning. Washington describes all life as having the qualities of “iwa, Ori, and ashe” (“character,” “soul,” “energy”), which Obatala’s whiteness refracts like white light radiating many different colors through a prism (Washington 39). She quotes Fatunbi, who connects Obatala’s light-like function to the creation of life, “[b]ecause all color is contained within white light, all Orisha are believed to be linked with Obatala” (Washington 39). When understanding Obatala’s white as linked to all colors and Orishas, it becomes clear why it makes sense for practitioners of Orisha traditions to so often wear white.
I hope this article has helped to clear up any misconceptions about this practice in Africana traditions and explain some of the depth behind the color from a Yoruba perspective. You can tap into the energies of wearing white whether you practice an Orisha tradition or another Africana tradition where wearing white has similar meanings or whether you simply practice Afrocentric spirituality on your own!
Olupona, Jacob Obafemi Kehinde, and Rowland Abiodun. Ifa Divination, Knowledge, Power, and Performance. Indiana University Press, 2016.
Washington, Teresa N. The Architects of Existence: Aje in Yoruba Cosmology, Ontology, and Orature. Oya’s Tornado, 2015.