Colour Codes of Awareness

The Colour Codes of Awareness from White through to Black

The Colour Codes of Awareness can be used as a model or system for conceptualising just how we should actually apply awareness. Many people espouse that we should always maintain awareness of our surroundings and be on the lookout for warning signs and indicators that warn of a person about to possibly attack. But it can still be unclear as to how we should go about being ‘aware’.

The Colour Codes of Awareness provide a clear and simple explanation about how to go about applying awareness and how to be aware. Such is the beauty of the system. This system was first developed by Jeff Cooper who was an officer in the Marines who served in WWII and Korea and was later a weapons trainer. The system I will be presenting here is a modified version which I think is more targeted and specific to the topic of awareness.

The system uses a scaled or tiered colour system to indicate different levels of awareness. The colours progress in order from white through to yellow, orange, red and black.

White - No Awareness

The white level is where you are completely unaware of what is going on around you. An example would be walking down the street to buy some fruit, staring at the ground and thinking of what you will be doing on the weekend. At the white level you are very prone to being caught by surprise. Some may even be able to remember being in such a state of awareness and being caught by surprise as someone else turned a corner at the same time as you and almost ran straight into you. Imagine if a person standing casually against a wall that you did not notice all of a sudden pulled a knife and demanded your wallet or purse. That feeling of surprise would be much much larger than simply bumping into someone.

White is bad. It leaves you vulnerable to being caught by surprise. Even a highly trained fighter will be on the back foot in such a situation and could be the difference between surviving and not. One of the very best things we can do for our own safety is to deny any possible attacker the use of the element of surprise. When you are in white, you are not aware of anything going on around you.

In white, you are vulnerable.

Leave white for when you are home. Of course, only if the doors and windows are locked. The home is one place we should all feel safe. Some extremists insist that even at home, we should never be at the white level. I certainly disagree on this one. If the doors and windows are all locked, let your guard down a little. Enjoy dinner. Enjoy that movie on the couch. But when out and about, we should all be in yellow mode as a default setting...

Yellow - Casual Scanning, General Awareness

The yellow level is what we should all be in at most times. At the yellow level, all we are doing is maintaining a general awareness of our surroundings. This involves recognising when we go into higher threat areas such as an empty multi level car park alone, or along a street that leaves a busy entertainment area at night by ourselves. These are higher threat times and we should logically be security conscious when in these environments. It is only through being aware that we can recognise a possible threat early so we can avoid it or take other measures. Being aware of our surroundings enables us to recognise this as we go.

As well as being aware of our environment and surrounds, in yellow we also maintain a general awareness of the people around us at any one time. This involves just a casual scan as we go about our lives. It is not about walking along, staring at people and turning our head in every direction. It is certainly not about being paranoid. It is simply about casually scanning as we go along with our life. Often when doing this, we will see our friends or family at a shopping centre well before they see us for example.

Essential for this yellow level to work, we need to know what we are looking for. Here, knowing some of the key signs and indicators of people likely to be trying to hide violent intent is vital. Some of these aspects are things such as clenched fists, avoiding eye contact, rocking back and forth or bouncing slightly, quick actions rather than relaxed and casual as well as hiding their hands are just some.

These are the types of things to look for when in yellow. These types of cues are used in conjunction with the environment you are in. Being in a busy mall in the middle of the day where pick pockets would be likely and being in a quiet train station at night where muggings or robbery would be more likely require two different types of approaches.

Actually knowing what to look for and knowing where the most dangerous areas are and actually casually scanning as you go about your life is what the yellow level is all abut. Scanning without the knowledge to know what to look for is misguided, though better than nothing. Skipping through an empty car park then lane as a short cut but scanning is misguided as well, as you may encounter 6 youths with weapons in front and behind you. This is about environmental awareness as well.

Once you have identified a possible threat, the orange level springs to life...

Orange - Possible Threat Detected, Assessment

You have been aware of where you have been going and you have casually been scanning around you and you have detected someone suspiciously hanging around a driveway up ahead who is hanging back mostly out of view...


You have detected a very possible threat. This is how you stay safe from violent crime. Now that you have detected this possible threat, keep watching. Assess their behaviour. Think about the context of where you are and what the time is. Maybe you will see that this person is merely waiting for a lift as a car pulls alongside and picks him up. Maybe he has had a few drinks and is looking for somewhere to do a piss. It’s up to you to assess if this person really is a threat. It may take a split second, it may take a couple of minutes depending on how far away you are and things like that. If it is nothing, keep going on with your life.

The main thing is that you have identified something and have considered a threat to you. Many people never accept that someone would do any harm to them. It will never happen to them. Sometimes, it does. Most times it won’t though. There will be many instances of where you go from yellow to orange to yellow to orange and so on. This is the meat of how to avoid violent crime. If you are not looking for it, you won’t see it.

Red - Decision, Action

You have been in orange mode and have determined that the threat is likely a real threat. It is now decision time. Time to act. In the case of the person hanging around in the driveway mostly out of view, one possible action could simply be walking across the road before you get anywhere near that person. Maintain a watch on that person as you go by. Remember, most predatory attackers are looking for an easy victim, someone unaware, someone who can be caught by surprise. They will probably let you go by. Continue on, maintain awareness. Possibly as you cross the road, the person comes out a little, looks up and down the street quickly and is looking to cross as well. Turn around and go where you came from. If you need to, run. This could only ever be possible because you were at the yellow level to begin with and detected this threat early.

Red is all about taking avoidance actions. It is only possible because of the yellow and orange levels before it. Avoidance is more than just walking away from an argument (though it still can be), it is about detecting a threat early and then avoiding it. It could be leaving a bar or going to a separate area of a bar because you have seen someone eye balling you after they thought they saw you checking out their missus...

Is avoidance cowardly? Is it the weak way out for losers? I have heard some poor and immature arguments saying it is. Normally it is people with very low self confidence, very low self belief and fragile egos. I am very comfortable with myself and my abilities. I look at avoidance as winning. If I can recognise a threat and avoid it, I have won. Without lifting a finger.

Black - Engaged in Physical Encounter

Black is when you are engaged in a physical encounter. It could be a fight, a gang attack or whatever. This is not really a level of awareness but needs to be included as well. For one very important reason. What happened at all of the previous levels dramatically effects what happens at the black level. If you were in white mode and got attacked, your chances of success are quite low, no matter your ability. Whereas if you were in yellow mode, then recognised a threat, determined it was a probable one, and took action to avoid it first... Then you know exactly the nature of the attack. You are not shocked by surprise. Sure, it will still be a scary thing but you are not shell shocked by a massive push from the side.

You will know the nature of the attack such as whether it is predatory or alpha male. You may be able to lessen the time of the encounter. You will have a better base to draw on any methods you use as you know how it developed and maybe even why. You may have even detected that there are actually three guys and not only the one you see now. That is a key factor to know so you are not blindsided. You are in with a fighting chance.

You may have even had time to find an improvised weapon to even the odds a little. If you were in white mode, no such luck should be expected.

You may even have been able to determine that the guy is not a lethal threat because of what you saw prior to him picking you. He may just be hopelessly drunk or even mentally challenged. You may then attempt using less force than if you were caught by surprise.

Awareness = Avoidance

The point is, by starting at yellow, you give yourself options. You minimise the chances of being caught by surprise. Even though you may not be caught by surprise, it should be said that there will still be stress. Utilising the colour codes of awareness will not necessarily stop things such as tunnel vision, slow motion time, auditory exclusion, high heart rate, loss of fine motor skills etc. But, it will limit their effects as surprise is taken out of the equation. Combat will always be stressful.

Seeing things develop early can limit these effects and enable us to still think and act. Especially important is that harnessing the colour codes of awareness enables us to act before it turns physical.

All you need to do is start off at yellow and avoid white. Its that simple.

Header image via Trevor Mills



This article about Coopers colour codes of awareness makes up just one chapter of our book Self Defence Smarts. If you liked this exploration of awareness you will love Self Defence Smarts.

Learn what strategic self defence consists of, finally understand the differences between strategy and tactics, discover how to take a risk based approach to self defence and lots more. It's over 39,000 words...