Carrington College The Nation and There Was Light and It Was Good Discussion

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Saulny, S. (2003). The nation: And there was light, and it was good? Introduction to Sociology. Retrieved from…

THE ”Michael Jackson” is all the rage in Tanzania. And those too poor to bleach their skin with the mysterious pill named after the ever fading King of Pop turn to a messier method, coating their skin with koroga, a homemade, dangerous mixture of lye and bleach.

Traveling through the heart of the Namibian desert recently, Dr. Ife Williams, a Philadelphian who spent the last six months teaching political science at the University of Dar es Salam, was stunned to see women using koroga there, too. ”I thought I knew something about race, having studied it all my life,” Dr. Williams said, ”but I did not really understand the depth to which even African people had begun to internalize racism.”

There hardly seems a place on earth untouched by social and political hierarchies linked to skin color, which rank the world’s rainbow of skin tones according to two shades, light and dark. That distinction is the foundation of the current notion of race.

As how to define racism, much less what to do about it, roils the delegates to the United Nations’ World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, it might be wise to remember that the importance of skin color is largely a modern invention.

Certainly, slavery and many other oppressive forms of hierarchy have existed throughout human history, as have differences in skin color. But the idea that the two have a cause-and-effect relationship is relatively new, with its genesis, many academics say, in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonialism that emerged with it.

There is no word for race in the original language of the Bible, or in the writings of the ancients, like Herodotus, the Greek historian, anthropologists say. Marco Polo, in his 13th-century travels from Italy to China and back via the Indian Ocean, described peoples as ”idolaters” or ”the eaters of” this or that, not according to skin color, said C. Loring Brace, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and the curator of cultural biology at the school’s Museum of Anthropology. ”The concept of race does not appear until the trans-Atlantic voyages of the Renaissance,” he said.

ANOTHER way of thinking about skin color is to ask: When did Europeans start thinking of themselves as white?

”There was no whiteness prior to the 17th century,” said Manning Marable, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. ”Whiteness is the negation of something else. The something else are Africans who are described by Europeans not by their religion or nationality but by the color of their skin. And nowhere in Africa did Africans call themselves ‘black.’ ”

The word race was used for the first time in a modern sense, it is widely believed, in a 17th-century French travelogue, Dr. Brace said.

Historians have yet to decide conclusively on chicken or egg regarding racism and colonialism. Europeans used skin color to rank the people they ”discovered” around the world, and the black and brown people at the bottom were judged to have little humanity, so colonizing their lands and using them as slaves moved ahead freely.

”People with dark skin were demonized in order to justify their exploitation,” Dr. Williams said. ”The people in power spread the belief that: ‘These people are nothing but monkeys. We’re helping them out.’ ”

The Spanish began using the word negro to describe Africans in the 1500’s. They used claro, or light, for themselves. The application of the term ”white” to describe a person’s color, and, by extension, race, began in northern Europe thereafter, Dr. Brace said.

Skin color became seen as evidence of an essential human conflict, just the way art and literature pitted day against night, consciousness against sleep, evil against sacredness. And relative lightness of skin has proven a compelling ladder to superiority that people of many skin tones have tried to climb.

But if racial hierarchy is not a natural law, why was it that European whites exploited African blacks, rather than the other way around?

In his book ”Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (W.W. Norton), Jared Diamond, a professor of physiology at the U.C.L.A.’s medical school, contends that white dominance was a largely a product of geography, climate and other factors, not race. European habitats had a wide variety of plant and animal species that formed a reliable food base and encouraged farming, he says, and farming led to stable communities, stratified societies, governments and, eventually, armies and explorers who sought to extend their culture’s reach. Other cultures with those advantages, he argues, faced different diseases or other constraints.

”The main reason for the apparent domination of light-skinned people over dark people is a historical accident,” Dr. Diamond said.

THE human will to dominate others is far too creative to be satisfied only with skin color. Economic resources, dietary habits, religious beliefs — the range of factors that can prompt discrimination seems endless. And yet few are as pervasive as skin color.

There are a few places on earth that don’t see color quite the same way. But before anyone gets excited about openmindedness, consider: On Baku, an island in the Solomon Sea, and in various parts of New Guinea, in the Pacific Ocean northeast of Australia, the majority are very dark-skinned. Those who have pale skin are looked down on.

There, too, color matters.

Correction: Sept. 9, 2001

An article last Sunday on the history of stigmatizing dark skin misstated the name of an island in the Solomon Sea where people with light skin face discrimination. It is Buka, not Baku.