by dr ngo
My attention was drawn to an Indian forum on whether dark-skinned people face prejudice all over the world (with particular emphasis on the USA and India, unsurprisingly). My answer to the original Facebook query was, of Facebook necessity, brief:
Pretty much. If you look at it in terms of historical developments, "civilization" (the word itself comes from the word for "city") begins when a group of people - rulers and their entourage (priests, scribes, artisans) - are able to separate themselves from the majority of people who work outside, under the sun, every day. This elite then defines what is "good" (civilized, beautiful, superior) as what *they* are, which is less weatherbeaten/sunburned than ordinary farmers or herders or gatherers. Thus lighter = better. QED.
Let me expand somewhat. I confess to virtually no knowledge of Africa or the pre-Columbian New World, but in South Asia, East Asia, and (AFAIK) the Middle East, the “lighter is better” view seems to precede the domination of the globe by the West, whose preference for White Over Black has been extensively studied. This imperial domination, of course, reinforced the existing view in many cases (by making light-skinned Westerners the “ruling class” to be emulated) and also provided a modern ideology - “scientific racism” - to explain and justify the preference in general. See Frank Dikötter The Discourse of Race in Modern China, for example. So in no way should this post be considered disculpatory of the role of the West in the situation as it exists around the world today.
But the prejudice is, as suggested above, deeper-rooted in many places. It can be discerned, for example, in traditional iconography (via the visual and performing arts). Who are the darkest-skinned characters? Rubes, barbarians, and demons. In fact in some cases, when the Europeans first arrived, they were seen not as “white-skinned” but as what they were – weather-beaten mariners – whose complexion was depicted as reddish (not white) and thus barbaric! (Western men were also notably hairy, which tended to be associated in these societies with outsiders or barbarians - virtually animals - unlike the smooth-skinned local elites: hairy devils, they seemed.)
One apparent exception to this rule is the relatively recent trend prizing the “healthy” suntanned look, especially in America. (Take a bow, George Hamilton – I leave it to others to supplement this essay with the appropriate visuals.) This can also be explained by historical developments, however. Classic “color” prejudice dates to those millennia in which 90% or more of the population worked outside, so that only the elite could distinguish themselves by their indoor pallor. But in contemporary America, with far less than 10% of the population employed on farms, and the majority of the remainder employed inside in offices (or retail establishments or factories), an all-over tan marks someone as a person of leisure, and thus of affluence, and thus of worth, unless you are Zonker. Note that a “farmer's” or “truck-driver's” tan does not operate the same way – tanned arms with a whiter torso are still signs of the working class. Current revelations that the “healthy” tan is in fact unhealthy may undercut this niche preference somewhat, but the central principle remains – complexion can serve as an index to Who Is Better, one way or another.
There is, of course and unsurprisingly, much more complexity and diversity to “racial” prejudice than this. Given millennia of systematization of differentiation based on skin color, it is only to be expected that myths, theologies, and even “sciences” of such differences have developed, and with such systematization there inevitably arose contradictions and efforts to game the system. But the basic Out Of The Sun (so neener-neener to you serfs) Hypothesis seems a useful place to begin our diagnosis
The cure, however, is beyond not only the scope of this comment, but the range of this commentator, and will be left to others.