Without wanting to state the obvious, there are a lot of people on the planet: about 7 billion at the last count. Homo sapiens first walked the earth about 50,000 years ago and since then the Population Reference Bureau estimates that approximately 108 billion people have ever lived. That’s a mind-boggling statistic in itself but even more amazing is the fact that no two people are identical (not even twins)! In fact, the outer packaging of the human being is even more diverse than the brightly coloured paper you may be wrapping around your Christmas goodies this time of year. Like the billions of snowflakes that have ever fallen throughout history, we are all unique.
Not only are we all different shapes and sizes and have different body and facial features, but we are all different colours too. Different hair and eye colours and, of course, a wide variety of #skin-tones. Most healthy people don’t usually give this fact a second thought (unless we are either ignorant enough to be bigoted or unfortunate enough to be the victim of colour prejudice). But those of us who have a skin disorder that adversely affects our appearance need no reminding of the impact that our #colouring can have on the way that others perceive us… and also on the way we feel about ourselves.
Wikipedia tells us that human skin colour ranges in variety from the darkest brown to the lightest pinkish-white hues. Evidently, #pigmentation is the result of natural selection. It is thought to have evolved primarily to regulate the amount of ultraviolet radiation penetrating the skin so as to control its biochemical effects in the body. So, not surprisingly, there is a direct correlation between the geographic distribution of UV radiation and the distribution of indigenous #skin-pigmentation around the world. Areas that receive higher amounts of UV radiation, generally located closer to the equator, tend to have darker-skinned populations. Areas that are far from the tropics and closer to the poles have lower concentration of UV, which is reflected in lighter-skinned populations.
The most important substance determining the colour of a person’s skin is the pigment melanin. #Melanin is produced within the skin in cells called melanocytes and is the main determinant of the skin colour of darker-skinned humans. The skin colour of people with light skin, on the other hand is determined largely by the bluish-white connective tissue under the dermis and by the haemoglobin circulating in the veins within the dermis.
But the variations in human colouring are not as simple as that. There is the question of freckles and the relationship between eye, hair and skin colour to take into account too, not to mention the question of hair greying with age, all of which is too big a topic to get into in this post.
Then, of course, there is the vexed question of skin disorders that can affect skin colour. #Albinism, an inherited, genetic condition in which pigment is either totally absent or drastically reduced, is an extreme example. It can affect just the eyes or it can affect the eyes, skin and hair. Whilst albinism is rare in the western world, it is quite common in sub-Saharan Africa, where it has long been associated with #stigma and #superstition. One such belief is that albinism is the result of a white man having impregnated the mother or that the child is the ghost of a European colonist. Worse still, another superstition has developed to the effect that albino body parts are good-luck charms or possess some sort of magical powers. This superstition has resulted in over 100 albino murders in Tanzania, Burundi, and other parts of Africa in the past decade, committed by those wishing to cash in on this grisly and lucrative trade.
The social significance of differences in skin colour has varied across cultures and over time and is still an important issue in #India for example. There, pale skin is considered more attractive, while dark skin is associated with a lower class status, creating a massive market for skin whitening creams. There is also a correlation between fairer skin and higher-caste status in the Hindu social order. Bollywood actors and actresses famously tend to have light skin tones and Indian cinematographers often use graphics and intense lighting to achieve paler effects. Fair skin tones are also considered to be an asset in Indian marketing.
The #social impact of human colouring is not limited to the question of black versus white or dark versus light. It can relate to other aspects of a person’s colouring too. The stereotyping of blondes is well known. Which of us has not uttered the phrase “having a #blond moment” at some time? You may think this is harmless but surely it is all a matter of degrees. Redheads (often referred to pejoratively as“ginger”) have been viewed with suspicion and discriminated against as far back as the Middle Ages, when red hair and green eyes were thought to be the sign of a witch or some other supernatural being. Nowadays, discrimination can take the less deadly form of tiresome sterotyping (e.g. people with red hair have a fiery temper) or the odious and dangerous form of bullying.
Given the powerful social influence that colour has exerted in the past (and, sadly, still does today) it should come as no surprise that individuals with vitiligo (a condition which can, after all, result in two or even more contrasting skin tones on the same individual, as well as greying of the hair) often face social and cultural challenges. Depending on how marked the contrast is between an individual’s white patches and their unaffected skin, a sufferer in the western world may find themselves subject to unkind stares or even suspicion or revulsion from those who don’t understand what vitiligo (or leukoderma) is. For individuals in India, Africa or the Middle East the social and psychological repercussions of their pigment loss can be dire, imposing a significant psychological and financial burden and loss of marriage prospects.
It would be wonderful to think there might come a time when society would have as little regard for the packaging a human being comes in as it generally does for the colour and design of wrapping paper and focus instead on the wonderful gift inside. Sadly, this would seem still to be a long-term aspiration.
I started out this Christmas week to write a light-weight post and have ended up with anything but! So, before I get even heavier, I will leave you with some words from Seven Seconds by Youssou N'Dour and Neneh Cherry...
And when a child is born into this world
It has no concept
Of the tone of the skin he's living in
And there's a million voices
And there's a million voices
To tell you what she should be thinking
So you better sober up for just a second
Festive Blessings to people of all colours :)
My name is Caroline.