What Is It About Skin Color?

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

Digital Vision/Thinkstock
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

The notion that the superiority of the white race was part of the natural order was deviously reinforced by the rise of modern “scientific” racism in the late 19th century. Certain “stocks” of humanity were considered to be more highly evolved and civilized because of their color, superior “fitness” and “adaptations.” “Racial souls” were seen as mapping onto unique suites of physical traits, creating crazy ideas of ranked human types and civilizations. The association of color with character and the consequent ranking of people according to color stands as humanity’s most momentous logical fallacy.

Today one of the biggest concerns is the reinvention of clinical concepts of race, based on inaccurate generalizations about the susceptibility of people to certain disease risks. If clinical constituencies redefine and repackage the races as real biological entities, then we face a new era of scientific racism no less frightening than the first. Clinical authorities hold a sanctified place in American society and are capable of creating a new reality of labeled races that will be widely believed and promulgated because it is “for the good.”

The idea that race is a social construct is becoming more widespread, but that doesn’t diminish scientific racism as a real concept in the minds of many people who want to believe in it. Nor does it lessen the lived experience of racism today. Racist beliefs, anchored in the scientific racism of a bygone era, persist today but are mostly hidden because it is socially and politically unacceptable to air them. 

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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