The Meaning of Skin Color

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Cover Courtesy University of California Press
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.

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.

The first part of the book is devoted to the biology of skin color: how skin gets its color, how skin pigmentation evolved, and what it means for our health. Readers of my previous book, Skin: A Natural History, will find familiar material in this section but will also discover a lot of new information derived from recent genetic investigations of skin pigmentation and physiology. Our understanding of the evolution of human skin color is much more extensive than it was even a decade ago. Biology textbooks are filled with examples of evolution acting to bring about changes in the appearance and functioning of insects and viruses, but well-documented examples of evolution in action on humans are rare. Our skin reveals the combined action of the major forces of evolution, from the mutations that provide the basis of variation to natural selection and the other genetic mechanisms that caused changes in skin color as humans migrated around the globe. Every human being represents a walking set of compromise solutions worked out by evolution in the history of our lineage. Skin is our largest interface with the world, and its structure and color beautifully illustrate the concept of conflict resolution through evolution.

The properties of our skin — including color — affect our health. Most of us think that humans have used our collective intelligence to overcome biological limitations in a way that cultureless species cannot do. But at least with respect to our skin, this hubris is unwarranted. Many common health problems like skin cancer and vitamin D deficiency are caused by a mismatch between our habits and our heritage. The amount of pigment that our skin contains, which determines how our bodies deal with sunshine, evolved in our ancestors. Today, many of us live under very different conditions from those experienced by our predecessors and pursue dramatically different lifestyles. People living thousands of years ago did not have indoor jobs and go on vacation; they lived outside most of the time and generally didn’t travel much or very far. Because of these factors, many of us have an inherited skin tone that is not adapted to our current circumstances, and that mismatch places us at risk for specific health problems. Knowing our own particular risk factors can be a matter of life or death.

The second part of the book is devoted to how we perceive and deal with the social ramifications of skin color. We notice one another’s skin because we are visually oriented animals, but we are not genetically programmed to be biased. Over time, however, we have developed beliefs and biases about skin color that have been transmitted over decades and centuries and across vast oceans and continents. We have no evidence that when people of different skin colors first met in the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, their relationships or business transactions were affected by skin color. As long-distance travel became more common, however, people increasingly encountered others abruptly and were often startled by each other’s appearance. The parties involved rarely met on equal terms. European explorers tended to be more exploitative than egalitarian in their attitudes and less than charitable in their descriptions of the peoples they met during their travels. Darkly pigmented or nearly black skin astonished most Europeans, and the tales told and written of encounters with dark-skinned natives often described the color of distant peoples in lurid or unpleasant terms. For centuries, the tales written by European explorers and travelers were the only sources of information available about people living in distant lands, and these accounts had powerful effects on the ways readers and schoolchildren conceived of these others. Demeaning images of blackness, in particular, had an inordinate influence on human history and set in motion some of the most odious behaviors, customs, and laws our species has ever devised. We are still burdened by the biases that were planted in the minds of people centuries ago.

Skin color has been the primary characteristic used to assign people to different “races.” These categories, which have always been ill-defined, have varied tremendously from one place to another. Races have been defined as collectives of physical traits, behavioral tendencies, and cultural attributes. They have been considered real and immutable, so that a person having a particular physical characteristic had, by definition, all of the other attributes of the racial category. Roger Sanjek, one of the foremost scholars of race, notes that the global racial order has always included more than just black and white, but these two terms and the social values affixed to them have defined its poles. Systems of racial classification built on skin color and other characteristics have varied from place to place and through time. They are the products of racist ideologies. The aim of these classifications has been not only to physically distinguish one group from another but also to rank these groups in hierarchies of intelligence, attractiveness, temperament, morality, cultural potential, and social worth.

The association of color with character and the ranking of people according to color stands out as humanity’s most momentous logical fallacy. While widely recognized as malignant, color-based race hierarchies are still treated as facts of nature by some and are duly upheld and promulgated. A large portion of this book explores the origin and ramifications of this powerful social deception and the many ways in which it has played out in human history. Much is said today about a “color-blind” society and movement toward a “postracial” era, but we are not there yet. In most of the world, darker-skinned people experience prejudice. Despite laws prohibiting color- and race-based discrimination in many countries, many people aspire to lighter skin in order to have a chance at a better life. Understanding all of the different meanings of skin color in our lives may help us as a species eventually to move beyond skin color as a label of human worth and to see it instead as a product of evolution that once caused great misery.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color, published by University of California Press, 2012.

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