Oct 5, 2012

Living Color by by Nina G. Jablonski

Living Color by by Nina G. Jablonski

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, darkerskinned 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.
Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color by Nina G. Jablonski is an investigation of both the science of skin colour and the social meaning this physical trait has acquired over time. In the first half of the book, Jablonski explores the biology of skin colour, the evolution of pigmentation, the relationship between melanin and sun exposure, and the double dangers of skin cancer and vitamin D deprivation. In part two, she turns her attention to the cultural prominence skin colour has acquired over the centuries, and to how this physical characteristic became entangled with the cultural construct of race.

The main thesis of Living Color is twofold: one, that skin colour and race are not one and the same. The first is a biological reality; the second a cultural construct. Two, that there’s nothing inevitable about the meaning we presently ascribe to skin colour. The current social hierarchies that place light-skinned people in positions of privilege are the result of several historical processes, not of any innate characteristics associated with specific racial groups.

You’d think all of this would go without saying, but unfortunately you still find people who argue for the biological reality of racial categories. It’s worth remembering, once again, that The Bell Curve was published in 1994. Jablonski does a wonderful job of addressing these arguments, and in the process she firmly divorces the concept of skin colour from the concept of race:
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 only biological constant shared by people of similar skin tone is the amount of pigment in their skin and their ability to produce melanin; in regards to everything else, there’s as much variation within groups as there is across them.

Villain: But human nature! Batman: Social construct!

I found the chapter on how skin pigmentation evolved in response to environmental conditions very clear and informative. However, this chapter also contains the only argument in Living Color that made me uncomfortable, and I might as well get it out of the way now. Jablonski correctly points out that light-skinned people living in environments with high UVR levels are at additional risk for skin cancer; and that, similarly, dark-skinned people living in regions with low UVR levels risk vitamin D deprivation and all the associated immunological problems. The darker your skin tone is, the more sun exposure you need for your body to produce vitamin D; if you are, say, a black woman living in Iceland, this is going to pose challenges. Jablonski goes on to say that this was not a problem for our ancestors, but ease of travel and an increase in migration have combined to raise the risk that a mismatch between our skin tone and our environment will cause serious health problems.

The thing that bothered me was how Jablonski attributes this risk to the arrogance that causes us humans to see ourselves as outside of nature: she claims that we don’t think we should take solar conditions into account when deciding where to live because we’re so used to always having our way. I certainly don’t think she’s wrong that this kind of arrogance exists, but at the same time, I don’t think we can discuss what motivates people to move to places where the environment might not be ideally suited to their levels of pigmentation without taking our world’s huge inequalities into account. The global North-South divide in distribution of wealth makes it very difficult for me to think of arrogance when I think of migratory movements and what motivates them.

Jablonski’s remark is the kind of thing that could easily be used in crass “keep Europe white” anti-immigration arguments, but I do find it useful to take the context into account. Living Color is very obviously a progressive book committed to drawing attention to and helping battle racial discrimination; with this in mind, I don’t necessarily read the remark about arrogance as an anti-immigration remark. However, the fact remains that it easily lends itself to being appropriated by people who would use it as such. Living Color is otherwise a very thoughtful book; for this reason, I really wish this section had been worded differently, and that Jablonski had taken more time to carefully distinguish the well-off seeking sun exposure in expensive holiday locales without taking health risks into account from people who migrate from economically deprived or war-stricken areas.

Something Living Color does extremely well is debunk pseudoscientific “evolutionary” explanations for an innate preference for lighter skin, especially in women. At the same time, the book examines the sociocultural origins of standards of beauty that favour the light skinned in several parts of the world:
The dominant culture sets and perpetuates the standards of physical attractiveness, and these standards are overwhelmingly EuroAmerican and biased toward light skin. Media-driven messages emphasizing the beauty and success associated with light skin amplify existing societal preferences, creating a vicious cycle of aspiration to an unattainable ideal that affects men as well as women.
It’s especially interesting to consider these standards in light of the apparently contradictory fashion for both tans and skin-lightening products. In places like Europe and North American, those who are clearly white and have all the associated privileges can afford to look darker for aesthetic reasons. At the same time, women of colour all over the world risk the horrible side-effects of skin-lightening products because even within racial categories there are gradations of privilege according to skin tone. Regarding the historical origins of these sub-hierarchies, Jablonski says: “It is ironic that, even among abolitionists, the brutality dealt out to the light-skinned—even in fiction—was deemed more heinous than that suffered by the dark-skinned.”

In short, Living Color is a fascinating exploration of both the biology and the cultural history of skin colour. Highly recommended to anyone interested in race inequalities in the modern world.

Interesting (if often horrifying) bits:
Often when people talk of races, like the “white race” or the “black race,” as real biological categories, they assume that skin color and other traits of appearance, or even of temperament, are biologically connected in a heritable package. They are not. Skin color is a biological reality; race is not.

The concept of human “races” developed when skin color became attached to sets of other physical, behavioral, and cultural traits, which were then considered an immutable package; this package subsequently became associated with the idea of inherent social rank. It was propagated widely by respected authorities and transmitted faithfully as a stereotype.

Between trials, Alexina was forced to “testify” by displaying herself in public so that people could determine if she showed any “traces of the African.” She was stripped to the waist and publicly exhibited in a hotel, where she submitted to repeated examinations by prodding, leering men who were supposedly engaged in a scientific investigation into her heritage. In the end, the second jury could not agree on a verdict, and it was decided that the case would be retried in a different court. In the absence of any proof that Alexina was a slave, the jury in that trial declared unanimously for her freedom. Similar cases of women being stripped before juries in order to establish their whiteness or blackness occurred elsewhere.20 In every case, the “factfinding” exercises were thinly disguised attempts to display or impugn the sexuality of the women on trial. The supposed wild and animal-like sexuality of dark-colored women was simultaneously threatening and enticing, and the sexual tension and uncertainty created by mulatto women and their descendants was often expressed, if not resolved, in the courtroom.

The single most powerful factor reinforcing the preference for lightness in the last 150 years has been the dissemination of images in the popular media. When positive social messages and elevated social status are associated with images of people with lighter skin (as in much advertising), the effects are swift and sure. Humans are ever-imitative and suggestible and will work to transform themselves into a form or color associated with greater social acceptability and higher social status. Once established, attitudes toward skin color tend to be durable because they are reactions to known stereotypes and are faithfully transmitted by multiple cultural mechanisms.

From the outset, there was never anything objective or scientific about races. They were congeries of physical and cultural traits, defined by people who had a steadfast belief in their own superiority and most of whom had never seen those they were defining. Race definitions changed over time and from one place to another, so that a partial list of race names reads like a catalog of arbitrariness: Aborigine, African, alpine, Arab, Asian, Australoid, Bantu, black, Caribbean, Capoid, Caucasoid, coloured, Indian, Jew, Latino, Malay, Mediterranean, mestizo, Mongoloid, mulatto, Negro, Nordic, Oriental, Semitic, white. By the twentieth century, the definition of the Jewish race by religion rather than skin color set the stage for arbitrary discrimination and brutal subjugation.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I received an electronic copy of this book for review from the publisher.


  1. Wow, this sounds like a fascinating read. We get very high UV rates here in Western Australia & the population is predominantly of European descent. We have very high rates of skin cancer & high rates of Vitamin D deficiency too, as many of us avoid the sun because we just fry. However, there are also lots of very tanned people who have crocodile skin. Most unattractive! I agree with your objection to the idea that skin colour should be a consideration where a person chooses to live. There are such things as UV lights! People with SAD use them. I can't abide being pigeonholed because of skin colour. I refuse to say I'm "white", with all that implies. Like Peter Ustinov, I describe myself as pinkish, with purple tones in winter. :)

  2. This sounds like an interesting and multi-faceted book. It's horrifying to think that people still hold attitudes like those expressed in The Bell Curve, but I think many do, even sub-consciously. I believe it is still very much an issue here in the U.S.

  3. Does she discuss the association with skin tone and class at all?

  4. I have had this book on my radar for some time. Or I think there may be another book that sounds similar that Eva read and I have THAT one on my radar. But now I have this one, too.

    Your point about people not taking into account how the environment impacts them is a good one. I don't know if I think that is arrogance, though, or more faith in the belief that science will catch up and make that sort of thing a non-issue. I read somewhere that pretty much EVERYONE in the northern hemisphere is Vitamin D deficient, regardless of skin color.

    I also really, really think you should read Charles C. Mann's 1491 and 1493. Seriously, I think you'd love them both. In FACT, I may just send them to you as a housewarming gift :-)

  5. It's interesting to think of what happened during the African slave trade, where African leaders at first had no issue selling their neighbours because it was only the Europeans who categorised them, thus creating "race".

    Not sure I'm comfortable with the idea of the chapter you found uneasy, either. In a way such suggestions are making more of a point about race and how people should stay where they came from rather than mix, and the former surely creates more racism.

  6. UV levels....wow. Now there's something I had never thought about. I do think the argument problematic because as you say, it can be used to argue a sort of segregation.

    For the most part, I just find it sad that this kind of book has to exist. Then again, you've made me want to read it.

  7. You always read such good books against these kinds of idea, Ana! It was cool when it was gender and I'm sure it'll be cool when it's race too.

    Where did the comics panel come from btw?

  8. Violet: Yes, there are definitely ways of getting around the health issues, which is another reason why that comment struck me as out of place.

    Steph: And here in Europe too, sadly!

    Tasha: Yes, she does! That was super interesting as well.

    Aarti: Yes, I agree. I don't think arrogance is a good explanation at all. This book only just came out at the end of September, so the one you saw at Eva's was probably a different one. But I love that there are several books on this topic out there. And awww, thank you so much :D I'd love to read Charles C. Mann's books.

    Charlie and Trisha: Yes, I agree. And while segregation is not what the book argues for at all, it worries me that that section could be taken out of context and used for that purpose.

    Jenny: From this meme! The image was supposed to have linked to it but I messed up the code. Off to fix it :P

  9. I actually have this on my TBR list as it was recommended to me by a Sociology professor! I have not bought it yet, though. Great post!


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