Skin Color – Much Ado About Nothing

Those who believe themselves to be White. Full stop. What did I just read?

In the three decades or so that I’ve been conscious about race and skin color, there have been a handful of seminal artists and writers that have shook my world to the core, thus changing my mindset, and even the course of my actions. Sequentially:

Public Enemy
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Between the World and Me.

It was the latest of these influences, Ta-Nehesi Coates’ new auto biopic, where the believe themselves to be White passage presented itself—he uses the phrase whenever referring to Whites.

Identity formation begins with self-labeling, including how we classify ourselves according to skin color. But our identity is also shaped by how those around us—family, friends, colleagues—view us. Furthermore, society labels us, and skin color is a too-easy place to start. America has a special propensity to race its inhabitants, whether they want it or not. In fact, America is obsessed with skin color.

I know that larger society as well as my inner circle of contacts identify me as White. Coates’ challenge of Whiteness burst my own self-identifying bubble of Whiteness. I have been taking this label for granted, and realizing yet another invisible privilege can be sobering indeed.

I see this in my fair-skinned, red-haired daughter, who is distinctly Asian in appearance due to her one-quarter Filipina heritage. She often refers to herself as White. Our son, who has a darker skin tone and dark brown hair, talks much less about skin color. In fact, he has never called himself White (or Asian, for that matter). I’m wondering if this is noteworthy.

A white-skinned colleague of mine, who has a black father and calls himself “incognegro”, once told me that he only seems to talk about skin color in mixed race settings, meaning that in a group entirely of people of color, skin color, and especially Whiteness, rarely enters the conversation. So not only is America obsessed with skin color and race, it is distinct to White Americans.

Can humans be separated into distinct biological subspecies, based on hues and hair differences, limb and nose shapes? This question is the elephant-in-the-room that has swirled around the race science debate for centuries. While it is no longer politically correct to ask this out loud, the question nevertheless remains.

Our breakthroughs with understanding DNA and human variation shed irrefutable light on this debate. There is no biological justification that separates humans into subspecies. Period. It is impossible to ignore the science, but still too counterintuitive to learned attitudes and stereotyping for most people to accept.

To start unpacking the biology of race, let us start with the fact that for 95% of the time homo sapiens have walked the Earth (approx. 3m years), that roaming has been in Africa. Migration beyond Africa is a very recent chapter in our story. This time in Africa allowed for vast genetic variations to develop among humans. Anyone who has been to north, central, and southern Africa can attest to these differences.

When humans began to migrate out of Africa, they encountered very different environmental conditions: harsh winds, cold temperatures, etc. Evolution took over and we adapted, for survival. Yet the differences that developed—lighter skin, different eye shapes—represent a tiny fraction of the genetic code. Just as these visible differences are on our surface, so too are the genetics that cause these variations. Biologically, our differences are superficial.

Skin Color Map 1.jpg

Let us look specifically at skin color. The figure above shows skin pattern variations based on biogeographical ancestry. The patterns are easy to pick up. So what explains these differences, and how you can connect skin color variation across continents?

The sun. Solis. Sol. Al-Shams. Why might one need darker skin where sunlight is more direct? No, not to protect from skin cancer (this is the number one reason students give to this question, when I’ve asked it); only recently have humans survived past early adulthood. It has to do with that most significant of biological functions: reproduction. Sunlight provides vitamin D and other nutrients. However, ultraviolet rays break down folic acids, key to a developing fetus. Dark skin: problem solved.

When humans migrated away from the equator, toward less direct sunlight, we needed to let more sunlight in. This took care of our need for vitamin D. (Today, those with dark skin tones struggle with vitamin deficiencies when living in cold climates.) Keep in mind that all humans have enough melanin in us to make our skin and hair very, very dark. An enzyme, tyrosinase, regulates melanin, allowing skin to lighten or darken.

So, if our biological differences are superficial, then what explains our terrible history and ongoing tensions around race? It goes far beyond cultural differences. America’s founding fathers had a dilemma to solve shortly after the Revolution. The fledgling country needed to build itself around its economy. It needed cheap and controllable labor, in the millions. It already had that in place from nearly two centuries of slave trade. The dilemma came from the contradiction of the “All men are created equal” clause so central to its Declaration of Independence. Offering a social construct that Blacks were biologically inferior to Whites, and likely a different subspecies altogether, was too convenient to discard. This concept was already strongly embedded in the American psyche, slave-holder or not, and needed little justification.

The short of it is that America’s wealth was built on the exploitation and murder of millions with darker hues and different hair (Coates). (The One Drop Rule made it even easier for those with fair skin and blue eyes to be enslaved.) Think of this history when celebrating our country’s wealth and international standing, and in judging the scary trend of income inequality. On July 4th, read Frederick Douglas’ The Meaning of July 4th to the Negro.

Having already accepted the biology of skin color as intuitive (an adaptation to the environment), Coates has allowed me to now push further against my identification as White. I am simply human, with a small space to fill.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Kirchweger. “The Biology of Skin Color.” Discover n.d.: n. pag. Web.
Willis. “The Skin We’re in.” Discover n.d.: n. pag. Print.