Human Skin Color - Social Status and Racism

Social Status and Racism

According to classical scholar Frank Snowden, skin color did not determine social status in ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome. Relations between the major power and the subordinate state was viewed as more significant in a person's status than was their skin color.

The preferred skin tone varies by culture and has varied over time. A number of indigenous African groups, such as the Maasai, associated pale skin with being cursed or caused by evil spirits associated with witchcraft. They would abandon their children born with conditions such as albinism and showed a sexual preference for darker skin.

Many cultures have historically favored lighter skin for women. In Europe, before the Industrial Revolution, pale skin was preferred and was a sign of high social status. The poorer classes worked outdoors and got darker skin from exposure to the sun, while the upper class stayed indoors and had light skin. Light skin became associated with wealth and high position. Women would even put lead-based cosmetics on their skin to artificially whiten their skin tone. However, when not strictly monitored, these cosmetics caused lead poisoning. Achieving a light-skinned appearance was additionally brought about in various other ways, including the use of arsenic to whiten skin, and powders. Other methods included wearing full-length clothes when outdoors, including gloves and parasols.

Colonization and slavery by European countries inspired racism, led by the belief that people with dark skin were uncivilized and were to be considered inferior and subordinate to the lighter skinned invaders, which has continued to be perpetuated in modern times. During slavery, lighter-skinned African Americans were perceived as more intelligent, cooperative, and beautiful. They were more likely to work as house slaves and were also given preferential treatment by plantation owners and the overseers. For example, they had a chance to get an education while darker African Americans worked in the fields and did not get an education. The preference for fair-skin remained prominent until the end of the Victorian era, but the racial stereotypes about worth and beauty were still persistent in the last half of the 20th century and continue in present day. African American journalist Jill Nelson wrote that "to be both prettiest and black was impossible" and elaborated:

We learn as girls that in ways both subtle and obvious, personal and political, our value as females is largely determined by how we look... ... For black women, the domination of physical aspects of beauty in women's definition and value render us invisible, partially erased, or obsessed, sometimes for a lifetime, since most of us lack the major talismans of Western beauty. Black women find themselves involved in a lifelong effort to self-define in a culture that provides them no positive reflection.

Most actors and actresses have light skin, and there continues to be a preference for fair or lighter skin in some countries, including Latin American countries where whites are a minority. In Mexico, light skin is associated with power, as well as attractiveness. A dark-skinned person is more likely to be discriminated against in Brazil. Many actors and actresses in Latin America and Hispanic United States have European features—blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. A light-skinned person is considered to be more privileged and have a higher social status; a person with light skin is considered more beautiful and it means that the person has more wealth. Skin color is such an obsession in some countries that specific words describe distinct skin tones from "jincha", Puerto Rican slang for "glass of milk" to "morena", literally "brown".

In India, pale skin is considered more attractive, while dark skin is associated with a lower class status, creating a massive market for skin whitening creams. Fairer skin tones also correlate, to higher-caste status in the Hindu social order - although the system is not based on skin tone. Actors and actresses in Indian cinema tend to be dramatically lighter skinned than the average Indian, and Indian cinematographers use graphics and intense lighting to achieve more desirable skin tones. Fairer skin tones are considered an asset in Indian marketing, with models skin tones regularly photoshopped to lighten tone.

Skin whitening products have remained prominent over time, often due to historical beliefs and perceptions about fair skin. Skin whitening products sales across the world grew from $40 to $43 billion in 2008. In South and East Asian countries, light skin has traditionally been seen as more attractive and a preference for lighter skin remains prevalent. In ancient China and Japan, for example, pale skin can be traced back to ancient drawings depicting women and goddesses with fair skin tones. In ancient China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, pale skin was seen as a sign of wealth. Thus, skin whitening cosmetic products are popular in East Asia. 4 out of 10 women surveyed in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea used a skin-whitening cream, and more than 60 companies globally compete for Asia's estimated $18 billion market. Changes in regulations in the cosmetic industry led to skin care companies introducing harm free skin lighteners. In In Japan, the geisha was well known for their white painted faces, and the appeal of the bihaku (美白?), or "beautiful white", ideal leads many Japanese women to avoid any form of tanning. There are exceptions to this, with Japanese fashion trends such as ganguro emphasizing almost black skin. Skin whitening is also not uncommon in Africa, and several research projects have suggested a general preference for lighter skin in the African-American community. In contrast, one study on men of the Bikosso tribe in Cameroon found no preference for attractiveness of females based on lighter skin color, bringing into question the universality of earlier studies that had exclusively focused on skin color preferences among non-African populations.

Studies have found that, on average, women of a given ancestry have a lighter skin tone than men of the same ancestry. It is suggested that there is a sexual preference for paleness in women and darkness in men in many cultures throughout the world. In his foreword to Peter Frost's 2005 Fair Women, Dark Men, University of Washington sociologist Pierre L. van den Berghe stated, "Although virtually all cultures express a marked preference for fair female skin, even those with little or no exposure to European imperialism, and even those whose members are heavily pigmented, many are indifferent to male pigmentation or even prefer men to be darker." He elaborated that popular media in the Western world has repeatedly associated blacks with "advantageous stereotypes," as much as negative ones, such as "myths that praise their athletic aptitudes amongst many other things, and often depict them as males of superior genetic inheritance".

Significant exceptions to a preference for lighter skin started to appear in Western culture mid-20th century. Though sun-tanned skin used to be associated with the sun-exposed manual labor of the lower-class, the associations became dramatically reversed during this time – a change usually credited to the trendsetting French woman Coco Chanel making tanned skin seem fashionable, healthy, and luxurious. Today, though a preference for lighter skin remains prevalent in the United States, many within the country regard tanned skin as both more attractive and healthier than pale skin. Western mass media and popular culture continued to reinforce negative stereotypes about dark skin, but pale skin has become associated with indoor office work while tanned skin has become associated with increased leisure time, sportiness and good health that comes with wealth and higher social status. Studies indicating that the degree of tanning is directly related to how attractive a young woman is have also emerged. There has also been an increase in the perceived attractiveness of dark-skinned women.

Read more about this topic:  Human Skin Color

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