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Why Judging a Person by Their Skin Colour Defies Logic

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For centuries, mankind has been obsessed with the colour of skin. This obsession has resulted in people taking radical steps to alter their own skin colour, risking serious harm for the sake of ‘beauty’ and sexual attraction, as well as leading to a profound prejudice of races of people different from our own who may have either a darker or lighter skin tone. What is it that makes us so obsessed with skin colour and is there any logical basis to people’s perceptions of skin colour?

In Western countries, men and women bake themselves for endless hours under the sun, immerse themselves in cancer-causing UV radiation and repeatedly spray themselves with chemicals in order to achieve the perfect tan. This is of course based on the belief that olive skin is more attractive.  Yet in Japan, it is the reverse. Women with olive skin desperately seek a pale or white complexion. This can be achieved through bathing the skin in sake and rice bran, using decolourizing chemicals or undergoing aesthetic skin decolourizing surgeries.  The preference for white skin in Japan dates back many centuries. There is an old proverb: ‘iro no shiroi wa shichinan kakusu’ (white skin covers the seven flaws), which means that a fair-skinned woman is beautiful even if her features are not attractive.

But strong feelings about skin colour do not of course only extend to one’s own skin. History has shown us that human beings have very strong opinions about the skin colour of other people and this has led to prejudice and discrimination on one end of the scale and mass genocide on the other. From apartheid laws that existed in South Africa which segregated individuals with dark skin, to the racist ideology of European colonialism and the dark-skinned ‘untouchables’ of the Indian caste system, prejudice based on skin colour has existed in virtually every country of the world.

But what is it that determines skin colour?  A recent study published in the journal PLOS Genetics revealed that Indians share a gene with Europeans that plays a significant role in producing lighter skin. The Indian subcontinent has an enormous variation in skin colour ranging from dark brown to whitish-pinkish tones and the researchers aimed to find out what was at the root of this variation. After taking skin colour measurements from 1,228 individuals, they then conducted a genetic analysis and found that most of the skin colour variation was due to a variation in a skin pigmentation gene called SLC24A5, which is present in almost 100% of Europeans.  This gene occurred through a mutation that became positively selected, meaning that the mutation was passed down to offspring, becoming more prevalent in a population over time.  

Other variations in skin colour have evolved to primarily regulate the amount of ultraviolet radiation penetrating the skin, controlling its biochemical effects, such as absorption of Vitamin D from the sun.  People in the tropics have developed dark skin to block out the sun and protect their body's folate reserves. People far from the equator have developed fair skin to drink in the sun and produce adequate amounts of vitamin D during the long winter months. As Alan Goodman, Biological Anthropologist said: “All skin colours, whether light or dark, are not due to race but to adaptation for life under the sun.” 

Dark skin is the original ancestral state of all humans.  Some individuals were born with mutations giving them lighter skin and a combination of diet and sun exposure led to this trait continuing on in some individuals.  Therefore, it becomes clear that the belief that white skin is more superior does in fact defy logic. Lighter skin is merely a biological mutation – nothing more and nothing less.

For centuries, skin colour has been used as a marker of race, but now new research is changing the way we see ourselves, and each other.  Science is beginning to uncover the intricate relationship between our pigment and our environment. Perhaps one day, a greater level of education about these factors will help to eliminate the prejudice that has existed since the dawn of time and which still continues today.

By April Holloway

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