What Is It About Skin Color?

A top expert on the evolution of our pigmentation explains how we all became so color-struck.

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Indeed, the bankrupt concept of fixed and immutable human "races" -- packages of physical and behavioral traits -- ranked by color has led to the creation of potent and persistent racial stereotypes. When these stereotypes are propagated widely by revered authorities and transmitted faithfully from person to person and generation to generation, they can last and last.

"Races" are not just labels, because they can determine fate. Race labels that are associated with negative or positive depictions and narratives can have powerful effects by planting in people's minds the idea that their own group is superior, inferior, smarter, stupider, stronger or weaker than another.

Stereotypes are not realities, and the behaviors they engender are not inevitabilities. Human attitudes are constantly subject to revision through experience and, more importantly, through conscious choice. Biases can be modified and eradicated on the basis of experience and motivation, and stereotypes can be changed when people are motivated to think about someone, in any way, as a member of their own group. Educating our children and youths about the evolution of skin color, the history of race and the dangers of stereotyping may have remarkable and positive results for humanity.

Nina G. Jablonski is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. This essay is based on her new book, Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color.

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