I recently was part of an interesting debate about “Obsession with looking/being fair and impartiality based on color” and here are my thoughts. A fellow colleague even pointed me to this book Fair Women, Dark Men : The forgotten roots of Racial Prejudice. (Yes, I pinched the title from it) The book documents the findings of an antho researcher who studied different cultures and their preferences when it came to skin color. Here are some of the interesting results:
- 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.
- The author reports that out of 51 different cultures in the anthropology profession’s famous Human Relations Area Files, 44 cultures favored lighter complexions on either only women (30) or on both sexes (14). In only 3 cultures was fair skin preferred on men only, and in just 4 cultures was darker skin desired.
- Lighter ladies were favored in many countries with little exposure to Western beauty standards, such as medieval Japan, Ethiopia, Aztec Mexico, and Moorish Spain, where the dominant culture was darker skinned than the conquered natives.
Of course, my first thoughts were : could this all be social class prejudice? Well, my claim is that the answer is not so simple. My colleague made the point that preferences based on color were more of an evolutionary trait rather than a product of social sanction. Even though I am no expert on evolution, I would think evolution would ensure (genetically) passing of only those traits that would aid in survival. All characteristics of human beings like the ability to walk on our hind legs, herbivorous diet, even the gestation period points in that direction. Could preferences of color be another similar trait? I have read about men preferring voluptuous women and women with wide pelvic bones, because they see them as fertile and being better equipped for child birth. This is something that seems like a characteristic passed genetically. But color based preferences .., I dont know.
I will quote Jared Diamond when he says, the whole world looks at life/society through western goggles, primarily because they were the ones that first to put indigenous technology to use. Would the preferences have been different if people from the sub saharan region of Africa were the most wealthiest, technologically equipped and the most powerful people on earth. The balance of power, at least in documented human history, has always been in favor of western civilizations. Given that people from western societies were the first to explore the world via the high seas, they could have very easily exported a powerful social prejudice. The fertile belt, where most of modern civilization is said to have originated, lies mostly in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region. These regions are surrounded mostly by Africa and the middle east, most of which are tropical and are home to people with relatively darker skin tone. Its not hard to imagine that “different looking” people were treated as hostile and alien and eventually this turns into social prejudice. Could this be a simple explanation to a very complex question?
In the classical world calling a woman white or fair was a compliment. People were more ambivalent about color in men. In the Old Testament Ham saw his father drunk and naked and was cursed with darkness. This is the biblical theory of the origin of human races. Thousands of years later original Christians were Medeteranians/Semites of an intermediate color between Northern Europans and Africans. “Ethiopians,” as they called black Africans, were used as the symbol for ugliness and sin. An early Christian wrote “What is more lowly, what is more like Ethopia, than our bodies, blackened, too, by the darkness of sin?” Satan would often appear as an Ethiopian. The black woman was the antithesis of beauty. A story reaches us about monks wanting to turn themselves off sex. They were encouraged to think of something disgusting. One thought of the Ethiopian woman.
Given that our societies are becoming muti-racial it will be interesting to see what will be of these preferences. My take , even if evolution did have a part to play, our generation must get over such prejudices and hopefully aid evolution( a sort of induced evolution) to rid people of this preference. It will be interesting to hear some of your thoughts on this topic. Comment away.