Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color

Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color

Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color

Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color

Synopsis

Living Color is 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.

Excerpt

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 first gave it serious thought. When I was about twelve, I learned that one of my great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side was a “Moor” from northern Africa. I wanted to know more, but no one seemed to know anything about him, and everyone seemed uncomfortable talking about it. My mother was Italian American, and all I heard growing up was that we had “Mediterranean” skin. In rural upstate New York, where I was raised in the 1950s and ‘60s, I was one of the most darkly pigmented kids in my school. I didn’t understand fully why my relatives avoided talking about our African ancestor or our color, but I realized that it embarrassed them. Some years later, I learned that my mother’s brother, a decorated World War II veteran, had been called a “nigger” by a superior officer while serving overseas. I also learned that my mother and her darker siblings had suffered color discrimination while growing up. They had moderately pigmented skin . . .

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