The Meaning of Skin Color

The meaning of skin color is investigated, from prehistory to the present, in the fascinating book, "Living Color."


| November 2012



Living Color By Nina Jablon

Richly illustrated, "Living Color" explains why skin color has come to be a biological trait with great social meaning—a product of evolution perceived by culture.

Cover Courtesy University of California Press

In a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion, Nina G. Jablonski begins with the biology and evolution of skin pigmentation, explaining how skin color changed as humans moved around the globe. She explores the ways in which negative stereotypes about dark skin developed and how they have played out through history—including being a basis for the transatlantic slave trade. In the following excerpt from the introduction of Living Color (University of California Press, 2012), Jablonski explains her personal connection to the "meaning of skin color." 

We are united, and divided, by our skin color. Perhaps no other feature of the human body has more meaning. Our skin is the meeting place of biology and everyday experience, a product of human evolution that is perceived within the context of human culture. An attribute shaped by biological forces, skin color has come to influence our social interactions and societies in profound and complex ways. Its story illustrates the complex interplay of biological and cultural influences that defines and distinguishes our species.

Everyone thinks about the color of their own skin, and usually we can remember when we first gave it serious thought. When I was about twelve, I learned that one of my great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side was a “Moor” from northern Africa. I wanted to know more, but no one seemed to know anything about him, and everyone seemed uncomfortable talking about it. My mother was Italian American, and all I heard growing up was that we had “Mediterranean” skin. In rural upstate New York, where I was raised in the 1950s and ’60s, I was one of the most darkly pigmented kids in my school. I didn’t understand fully why my relatives avoided talking about our African ancestor or our color, but I realized that it embarrassed them. Some years later, I learned that my mother’s brother, a decorated World War II veteran, had been called a “nigger” by a superior officer while serving overseas. I also learned that my mother and her darker siblings had suffered color discrimination while growing up. They had moderately pigmented skin and tanned heavily during the summer, in contrast to the kids of northern European ancestry in nearby neighborhoods who hardly tanned at all. Their dark color was derided by some of their classmates and a few of their teachers, but they made friends among the local “Indians” at the beach because they “all shared the same color and were darker than everyone else.” In the minds of my relatives, then, dark skin had many shades of meaning, and some were better than others.

Years later, as a graduate student and then a professor in biological anthropology, I realized just how deeply color anxiety permeated my own academic discipline. Physical, or biological, anthropology is committed to the study of human evolution and human variation, and yet differences in skin color — one of the most obvious and variable of human traits — were mostly only described and not explained. In late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anthropological treatises, explanations of differences in skin color were often given in the context of “definitions” of races. And to some anthropologists of the time, some races were superior to others. The racist tenor of anthropological and scientific writing on human skin color was so repellent to later scholars that after the Second World War, research on the evolution of skin pigmentation or the evolution of races was avoided, as were questions about the origin of skin color variation and its meaning to our biology and health. So, too, scholars skirted around questions of the origin of skin-color discrimination in different parts of the world. Until the past decade, these questions were seen as too divisive and too difficult to explore.

As a graduate teaching assistant, I hobbled through the first classes I taught on human variation and “race” and wished that someone would do research or engage in discussions that would yield deeper insight into these issues. I never imagined that that one of those people would be me. Fortunately, today I am not alone in my interests. There are probably hundreds of experts from the fields of anthropology, genetics, sociology, medicine, and many other disciplines who study skin color and its many kinds of meaning. We live in an Enlightenment of color.

My goal in writing this book is to share information on the origin and meanings of skin color and the ways it affects our daily lives. Human evolution and human history are easy to comprehend, but they are rarely discussed in plain language or together. I have tried to write this book in a straightforward manner so that anyone with a basic knowledge of biology and history can understand it, and so that the facts of skin color will become common knowledge.