Professor Nina Jablonski – Living color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Color

Tuesday, 16 October 2012 | buzz

On Tuesday October 16, our host Aaron Perry interviewed Nina Jablonski, author of Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color. Jablonski is a distinguished professor of Anthropology at Penn State. She has been focusing her research on “why human skin comes in the range it does, and what skin means to us.”


Comparing the high movement of people today with the relatively low movement across spaces with our ancestors thousands of years ago, Nina looks at the potential mismatches that “exist between our bodies and the new environments in which we find ourselves. Obvious examples are related to skin color.” Nina presents the example of a person with lighter skin pigmentation who might go to a place where the sun is very strong would easily get sunburned whereas this would not have happened as easily had the person remained in the land of his or her ancestors. On the other hand, those with a darker pigmented skin color who live in areas with weaker sunlight could potentially experience a Vitamin D deficiency from the lack of adequate sunlight. These mismatches, she points, have effects on our health. Nina also discusses in her book about the phenomenon of “colorism”: the discrimination of people who have more melanin. She discusses the serious effects that this phenomenon has on the economic and social progress of the world, “the lack of awareness of these issues, and the lack of public discussion about them, is an impediment to social progress.”


When Aaron asks Nina to discuss what she hopes the outcome of her book will be, she explains, “First, what I hope to see is that people gain an appreciation of how skin color developed in the first place, that it wasn’t arbitrary; it evolved according to a very predictable pattern according to solar radiation. The second is that we have come to assign names to different skin colors, and names to different races of people with different skin colors. These assignments are cultural arbitrary assignments that we’ve made at different points in our history, and many of these assignments have been made by incredibly fallible and narrow-minded people. We need to understand that races are not biological entities. Skin color is not related to most other aspects of how we look and act… the idea that we should consider races based on color is really fallacious. This doesn’t diminish the fact that people live with the consequences of racism. One of the outcomes I hope is that people will think about color, the races, and how they form their own idea of what races are. Once people spend even a few minutes introspecting about this, they will realize that many of the big social and economic problems in this country owe to the fact that we think about people in terms of different motivations, different cultures, and even different levels of civilization based on their color…and that these colors are completely erroneous and destructive.”


Nina has also published another book “Skin: A Natural History” which focuses more generally on the functionality and evolution of skin, and how humans have made use of skin in the cultural context.


Listen to the interview here:

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