Paradoxes of Pigmentation


Nina Jablonski in Berfrois:

Far from the bright lights of Holly/Bolly, many people think that their own dark skin casts a shadow over their lives. They sense that people think less of them because of it, and that somehow their skin is literally a black mark against them when they seek a job or a marriage partner. Why does skin colour matter so much, and why – in light of myriad anti-colour discrimination laws now on the books around the world – does it appear to matter as much or more today than it did at the height of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements a half century ago?

At the outset, recall that we are primates, and as such are obsessed with everything visual. We are observant, imitative and status-conscious too; and assess the appearance of others consciously and unconsciously as we decide what to do from one moment to the next. Our brains expend great cognitive effort in the interpretation of faces, and we instantaneously assess information about a person’s age, health, mood, intention and attractiveness as we scan their face. Our perceptions of attractiveness are also affected by social factors. We are inordinately influenced by our peers, especially as adolescents, because we seek acceptance and fear rejection. At the same time we also become highly conscious of social position, and seek to emulate individuals who we perceive as having higher status. Social anxiety about peer evaluation often persists through adulthood, with the tendency to imitate being more pronounced in women than in men. Looking or acting like someone with high status confers status by proxy.

Our urge to imitate people of higher social status or greater popularity has deep evolutionary roots. It has only been in the last few thousand years, however, that widely circulated and privileged images – on coins, stamps, photographs and in digital images – have given us opportunities to imitate people we have never seen. Images of “attractive” people and celebrities are electronically captured and rapidly propagated by the media, cell phone, social media and advertising. This highly dynamic and ever-growing reservoir of visual imagery affects how people translate perceptions of appearance into judgements.