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Living Color

Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color

Nina G. Jablonski
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 178
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  • Book Info
    Living Color
    Book Description:

    Living Coloris the first book to investigate the social history of skin color from prehistory to the present, showing how our body's most visible trait influences our social interactions in profound and complex ways. 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 relationship between melanin pigment and sunlight, and examines the consequences of rapid migrations, vacations, and other lifestyle choices that can create mismatches between our skin color and our environment. Richly illustrated, this book explains why skin color has come to be a biological trait with great social meaning- a product of evolution perceived by culture. It considers how we form impressions of others, how we create and use stereotypes, how negative stereotypes about dark skin developed and have played out through history-including being a basis for the transatlantic slave trade. Offering examples of how attitudes about skin color differ in the U.S., Brazil, India, and South Africa, Jablonski suggests that a knowledge of the evolution and social importance of skin color can help eliminate color-based discrimination and racism.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95377-2
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    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...


    • 1 Skin’s Natural Palette
      (pp. 9-23)

      Skin does so much in so little space. It protects the body against most physical, chemical, and microbial threats and yet maintains an exquisite sensitivity to touch, temperature, and pain. It achieves this and much more in less than one millimeter (about 1/25 of an inch) of average thickness, with a layer of nearly impervious dead cells covering the living cells.¹ Skin’s highly economical construction consists of two layers, the epidermis and the dermis. The epidermis (outer layer) is very thin, waterproof, and abrasion-resistant and contains important pigment-producing and immune cells. The thicker, denser dermis is tougher than the epidermis...

    • 2 Original Skin
      (pp. 24-33)

      Encountering people of different skin colors is now an everyday experience, but it was not so for our ancestors. Before the rise of cities and advances in rapid, long-distance transportation, most people lived and died not far from where their parents and great-great-grandparents had lived. Their skin colors had evolved to suit their environments, and so others they met mostly looked like them.

      The sepia rainbow of human skin that exists today evolved over the past 60,000 years, as modern humans dispersed out of equatorial Africa and adapted to new environments. It has only been in the past few thousand...

    • 3 Out of the Tropics
      (pp. 34-46)

      The origin and early evolution of the human lineage occurred in equatorial Africa. By about 2 million years ago, our hominid ancestors looked much more like modern humans than like apes in their body proportions and in their skin. Our transition to a nearly naked, sweaty, and heavily pigmented skin was complete or nearly so. Ecosystems in Africa underwent many changes beginning about 2 to 1.5 million years ago. As a result of global and regional climatic changes, conditions became more highly seasonal. Rapid and unpredictable changes brought about transitions from forest to woodland and from woodland to grassland. Plants...

    • 4 Skin Color in the Modern World
      (pp. 47-63)

      Humans have been on the road for a long time. The first dispersers from tropical Africa around 2 million years ago were early members of the genusHomoand are generally calledHomo erectus. Populations ofHomo erectusspread out to the farthest reaches of Africa and Eurasia. Those who came to inhabit parts of Indonesia, eastern China, and southwestern Europe had tenures of more than 1 million years, but most populations became extinct without trace by about 250,000 years ago.¹ There were some notable exceptions, the most famous being the lineage that gave rise to Neanderthals. The earliest members...

    • 5 Shades of Sex
      (pp. 64-71)

      Among the many differences alleged to exist between men and women, skin color is rarely mentioned. Although most people aren’t even aware of the difference, artists through the ages have been sensitive to it and generally have depicted men as darker than women (figure 14). The sexes also differ in how skin changes color with age. Men and women are not born different colors: they begin to diverge during puberty, under the influence of sex hormones. Women also gain pigment on parts of their bodies during pregnancy. Although these differences are subtle, they are consistent, and the patterns of sexual...

    • 6 Skin Color and Health
      (pp. 72-90)

      Skin color affects health. Whether it works for us or against us depends on where we are and what we’re doing. Because skin is the frontline of our body’s defenses, nothing about its structure and function has escaped the scrutiny of natural selection. And like skin’s other characteristics, skin pigmentation evolved long before we had sophisticated cultural ways of protecting ourselves from the environment. We need only go back about 15,000 years to encounter a time before sewn clothes and constructed shelters when we relied on temporary natural shelters and our skin for protection against the environment.

      Because solar radiation...

    • Plates
      (pp. None)

    • 7 The Discriminating Primate
      (pp. 93-102)

      Humans wouldn’t be so interested in skin color if it weren’t for the fact that we are highly visual animals. We form our impressions of others and the world around us primarily through what we see. We size up people and places, and decide what to do from one moment to the next, by comparing new visual perceptions to visually based memories. Our reliance on vision permeates every aspect of our lives as social beings. We assess the age, mood, and intention of others mostly from what we see, not what we hear or smell. We observe people around us...

    • 8 Encounters with Difference
      (pp. 103-116)

      For most of the history ofHomo sapiens, humans lived in small groups and did not travel much. Our ancestors would have seen their relatives regularly, and probably other people living in neighboring groups, but it would have been uncommon for people to travel far enough to encounter people who looked different from them.Homo sapienshas been around for more than 160,000 years, but only in the last 10,000 years or so have routine contacts between distant populations occurred.

      The earliest contacts between people with visibly different skin tones took place in the context of routine trade. The exact...

    • 9 Skin Color in the Age of Exploration
      (pp. 117-133)

      By the end of the fourth century CE, Europe, eastern Africa, and Asia were dominated by powerful empires, which maintained highly mobile armies and controlled large bodies of slave labor. More trade routes, over both land and water, allowed empires to extend into new territories and obtain commodities and people from ever more distant lands.

      Whereas the empires of the ancient Mediterranean world had been fairly tolerant and embraced cosmologies that included many gods, the empires of the medieval period were dominated by the monotheistic, proselytizing faiths of Christianity and Islam. New lands were conquered in order to acquire new...

    • 10 Skin Color and the Establishment of Races
      (pp. 134-141)

      The philosopher Immanuel Kant (introduced in chapter 9) was one of the most influential racists of all time. Kant was convinced that skin color denoted qualities of personality and morality. It was the primary criterion he used for sorting people into the categories he called races. To Kant and his followers, the equation of skin color with character signified that lighter-colored races were superior and darker-colored ones inferior, and that members of darker-skinned, inferior races were destined to serve members of lighter-skinned, superior races. Contemporaries who challenged his views were mostly eclipsed and forgotten. Kant established the modern agenda of...

    • 11 Institutional Slavery and the Politics of Pigmentation
      (pp. 142-156)

      By the late 1700s and early 1800s, dark skin was associated with inferiority and slavery in much of the world. To light-skinned Europeans, people such as American Indians and many Asians were savages and heathens, but Africans were considered a particularly depraved branch of humanity because of their darkly pigmented skin. Backed by interpretations of the Bible that viewed Ham as the father of dark-skinned Africans cursed with eternal slavery, the slave trade had been legitimized. What could have been an obscure theological debate became a debate over human worth as signified by skin color. The wordNegroitself made...

    • 12 Skin Colors and Their Variable Meanings
      (pp. 157-168)

      Colors may be neutral, but our minds and culture give them meaning. Over time, color labels likewhite,black, andbrownhave become freighted with messages of social worth when applied to people. These meanings have varied according to place and time. Most of the concepts of race that people understand or identify with today are socially weighted skin-color labels. Races are described as socially constructed categories because they are composite categories of physical and cultural attributes, and because they have meaning only under highly specific conditions of time, space, and culture. As categories go, they are slippery and arbitrary;...

    • 13 Aspiring to Lightness
      (pp. 169-181)

      Preferences for light skin have arisen independently in many cultures, and they have been reinforced when different “cultures of lightness” have come into contact. Because having lighter skin has often been associated with higher social status, success, and happiness, people over the ages have sought to become lighter by various means. In parts of the world today, the simple knowledge that lightness is associated with higher status elsewhere is sufficient to promote the desire for skin lightening and sales of lightening products. Skin lightening is not a fad: it is the ineluctable commercial extension of the now-worldwide phenomenon of colorism....

    • 14 Desiring Darkness
      (pp. 182-193)

      As we have seen, for much of recent history and around the world, pale skin has been prized, to such a degree that people have been willing to risk illness and disfigurement to obtain it. It is paradoxical, then, that tanned skin became fashionable and glamorous in Europe and the Americas in the mid-twentieth-century—to such a degree that people have been willing to risk painful burns and skin cancer to obtain it.

      After agriculture became widespread and complex societies developed, visible skin darkening was associated with sun exposure from outdoor labor. It is hard to know when this association...

    • 15 Living in Color
      (pp. 194-198)

      There is no topic more illustrative of human history than skin color. It unites us in evolution and divides us by walls of bias and stereotype. It invites us to learn about the life and times of our distant ancestors and taunts us with evidence of the psychological manipulation of modern peoples. Human beings are highly visually oriented and suggestible primates, ever willing to accede to the beliefs of people who have power over us and ever able to change our behavior.

      Skin and skin pigmentation were intensely influenced by evolutionary processes for hundreds of thousands of years of human...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 199-224)
  9. References
    (pp. 225-248)
  10. Index
    (pp. 249-260)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 261-262)