Originally introduced by Jeff Cooper, the color code of awareness is an indication of one’s mental state. It relates one’s willingness to act and differing degrees of peril, so one may escalate from one level of mindset to another.
Viewed as a progression of alertness classified by increasingly dark colors, learning the concepts of the color code is an important means of surviving a life-threatening confrontation.
White: Unaware, inattentive and unprepared. Conscious and unconscious minds are typically separated (daydreaming). Unready to take defensive/lethal action. If attacked in White you will likely die unless the adversary is inept. White is usually fine when in a secure home but you should never be in White in public (a condition called “food”). If you look and behave like food you will be eaten.
Yellow: Aware and alert. Focused, conscious of potential threats and dangers. In Yellow your mindset is “I may have to defend myself today”. In Yellow you’re using senses to assimilate surrounding information. You should always be in Yellow in unfamiliar environments and around unknown people. If armed you should be in Condition Yellow. As Cooper put it, “I might have to shoot.” Condition Yellow can be maintained indefinitely with minimal mental fatigue.
Orange: Alerted. Heightened Yellow. There is a specific potential problem and it has your attention. In Orange you set a mental trigger, your mindset is “I may have to shoot that Bad Guy in a few seconds!” Ask yourself “What is my objective? What are the alternatives? Is escape possible?” If with a partner or in a group, alert them to the potential threat. The sooner you go Orange on a threat the better. Increase your distance from the threat or at least maintain it. Assailants can usually sense Orange in others and will usually bypass in favor of “Food in White”. If armed the pistol usually remains holstered. There is mental strain while in Orange, though you can stay in Orange for extended periods of time if needed.
Red: Red is fight mode. Red is a distinct problem to solve. It is no longer a potential problem, it is in motion. In Red your mental trigger is pulled (fixed in condition Orange), and you are willing to fight. In Red you are ready to defend, and effect a full drawstroke if you are armed. In Red, take deep breaths and continue scanning for threats, take cover in a tactical location. Mentally rehearse defensive movements and drawstroke.
Though not originally part of Cooper’s Color Code, the USMC uses condition Black.
Black: Actively engaged in combat. Another separation of conscious and unconscious minds, you are engaged in the fight and will do as trained through subconscious action, or instinct. If untrained Black is the breakdown of mental and physical performance and you become the victim. In Black your heart rate is usually over 175 beats per minute and you stop thinking clearly.
The Color Code was developed to help you think during a threatening situation or fight. As danger increases, your willingness to take certain actions increases. If in Red during a life-threatening confrontation, the decision to use lethal force has already been made (your mental trigger has already been pulled).
Cooper went on to say: “There is a problem in that some students insist upon confusing the appropriate color with the amount of danger evident in the situation. As I have long taught, you are not in any color state because of the specific amount of danger you may be in, but rather in a mental state which enables you to take a difficult psychological step.”