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Is Color-Coding Humans as White, Brown, or Black Meaningful?

World map showing a selection of diverse ecological ethnicities. Original illustration by Palash Das and Maya Svevak. © 2021 Svevak LLC. All rights reserved.

The Question

In North America, especially in the United States, human beings are often color-coded as being either white, brown, or black. This type of color-coding is done for a variety of reasons, including for attribution of political and/or socio-economic characteristics. Sometimes the three-fold classification based on skin color is further reduced to a binary one, with white people on one side and all ‘people of color’ lumped together on the other side. Is color-coding human beings meaningful and/or effective?

The Facts

Let’s explore the scientific basis of skin color, i.e., pigmentation of the skin.

Epidermal melanin is important in the regulation of skin pigmentation and determines the wide variations in skin color associated with ethnic diversity. The outermost layer of our skin is called the epidermis, which is predominantly composed of tight-knit rows and columns of cells called keratinocytes. At the bottom of the epidermis, about 5–10% of the cells are specialized tree-like cells called melanocytes, which branch out to make contact with several surrounding keratinocytes.

In a process called melanin biogenesis, melanocytes produce pigments called melanin, of which there are three types: eumelanin (darker, brown/black), pheomelanin (lighter, red/yellow), and neuromelanin (dark). The relative amount of eumelanin and pheomelanin is a key determinant of color-based ethnic diversification in humans. Melanocytes package melanin into sub-cellular structures called melanosomes, which are then transported via the various branches (dendrites) of the melanocytes to neighboring keratinocytes, which internalize these melanosomes. The total number, density, and size of melanosomes within keratinocytes in a person’s epidermis play a large role in determining the color of her/his skin.

Melanin biogenesis forms part of a protective feedback loop. When ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun shine on skin, melanin production is stimulated. The presence of melanin in the skin of an organism in turn protects that organism from the harmful effects of UV rays. This property of melanin biogenesis is part of the reason that humans evolving in sun-drenched, warmer regions of the earth ⎯ like Africa, South Asia, Oceania, and South America ⎯ genetically adapted to be more efficient at melanin biogenesis. In other words, humans who are ethnically African, South Asian, Australian, and South American produce and contain more melanin in their skin ⎯ and are hence dark-skinned ⎯ than humans who are ethnically European, North Asian, or East Asian, who are hence light-skinned.

Why should we care about the science underlying skin color? Because understanding the science will help elucidate any inconsistencies that may exist in a color-based classification of human beings, compared to, say, a classification based on ecological ethnicity (defined later on). Such an elucidation will hopefully be aided by the application of, first, a narrow Karmalens, and then, a wide Karmalens.

What is a Karmalens?

There are myriad ways of being in and interacting with the world. All of these fall on a spectrum. Where you, I, or anyone else fall on this spectrum is determined at least in part by the radius of what I call our KARMALENS (sphere). The term Karmalens refers to an analysis of the world through the lens of Karma, i.e., of Cause and Effect. If my Karmalens is narrow, i.e., has a small radius, I will tend to adopt an INDIVIDUALISTIC way of being, meaning I will consider the effects of my actions and thoughts only on myself and extensions of myself ⎯ like my family and friends ⎯ and on my immediate surroundings ⎯ like my home and neighborhood. If my Karmalens is wide, i.e., has a large radius, I will tend to adopt a SUSTAINABLE way of being, meaning I will consider the effects of my actions and thoughts on humans, other life forms, and resources across the earth, even at large distances from myself in time and space.

Looking through a narrow Karmalens

When faced with the problem of trying to categorize individuals from among a group of diverse people, using skin color as the basis of such categorization is literally one of the narrowest Karmalenses I can adopt. Why? Because I am using only sensory data ⎯ that too only one type, namely, visual colorimetric data ⎯ from the surface (skin) pigmentation of an individual to categorize that person. Such a categorization is akin to using auditory inputs, e.g., how low or high a person’s voice is, or olfactory inputs, e.g., what type of body odor the person has. All such sensory data-based classifications are superficial, because what a person’s skin color is, how low or high his voice is, and/or what he smells like reveal nothing about the person’s value system or cultural context, which in turn inform his political and socio-economic characteristics. Essentially, these types of superficial classifications reveal nothing about who the person is.

But let’s give the skin color-based classification the benefit of the doubt.

People of European descent, i.e., those with ancestors who evolved for at least a few millennia in ⎯ and therefore genetically adapted to ⎯ Europe, are generally color-coded as white, based on the low levels of melanin in their epidermis. People of Indian descent are generally color-coded as brown, because of their skin’s intermediate melanin content. And people of African descent are generally color-coded as black, based on the high levels of melanin in their skin.

So then what about people of Chinese or Mexican descent? According to empirical measurements of melanin content, Chinese, Mexican, and European people have similar levels of melanin pigment in their skin. In other words, scientifically, they are all white. So are Chinese and Mexican people considered white?

Who is white is a problem the U.S. government has apparently been grappling with for several decades. For example, it didn’t know what classification should be applied to people of Indian descent. According to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity published in the Federal Register on August 28, 1995: “Asian Indians, for example, were counted as ‘Hindus’ in censuses from 1920 to 1940, as ‘White’ from 1950 to 1970, and as ‘Asians or Pacific Islanders’ in 1980 and 1990.” In the same publication, there was a debate about whether to have categories, such as ‘White, not of Hispanic origin’ and ‘White, European ethnicity,’ underscoring the need of the American government to differentiate between ‘white’ people with only European ancestors and ‘white’ people with some European ancestors and some Native Central/South American ancestors.

It appears, therefore, that the classification of a person as ‘white’ is not based on the melanin content in a human being’s epidermis, but rather on the genetic ancestry of that human being. The color code ‘white’ seems to be assigned to individuals who are predominantly, if not wholly, of European ancestry. Thus, a classification based on ecological ethnicity ⎯ as discussed below ⎯ may be a more meaningful and effective way of categorizing humans.

Looking through a wide Karmalens

What does applying a wide Karmelens to a human being look like, if the objective is to understand that individual, including attributing to her or him certain political and/or socio-economic characteristics? The radius of such a wide Karmalens sphere would extend out in both space and time to explore the migration history and genetic, cultural-linguistic, and ecological ancestry ⎯ the ecological ethnicity ⎯ of that individual. In addition to a person’s lived experiences in her/his immediate surroundings, her/his ecological ethnicity shapes the way s/he perceives the world and herself/himself within it, which in turn informs how to think, how to act, and how to be.

I’ll use myself as a guinea pig of a wide Karmalens analysis.

My genetic ancestry is 100% Indian (South Asian). My cultural-linguistic ancestry is also Indian, more specifically Bengali. My ecological ancestry, meaning the geographic region (ecosystem) my ancestors evolved in, is in and surrounding the delta of the Ganga River that flows into the Bay of Bengal. And my migration history? Well, I have lived and studied in many countries around the world, including India, Canada, and the United States. Overall, I would consider my ecological ethnicity to be Indian, or more specifically, Bengali. If I wished to be geographically neutral in my designation, i.e., by continental area, my ecological ethnicity would be South Asian.

How does my ecological ethnicity inform who I am? I am rooted in the language and culture of a civilization that is several thousands of years old. And a delicate ecosystem in which my ancestors learned to live sustainably in symbiotic moderation, so as to preserve the health and integrity of the ecosystem. My cultural framework teaches looking at the world through the widest Karmalens possible, which is what I strive to do. And my migration history has only augmented my ability to broaden my perspective by seeing the world through the eyes of different types of people.

For the majority of human beings, i.e., those living in Europe, Asia, and Africa, determining ecological ethnicity is likely straightforward. A man of German ancestry living in Germany is by ecological ethnicity European, or more specifically, German. A woman of Nigerian ancestry living in Nigeria is by ecological ethnicity West African, or more specifically, Nigerian, with further degrees of specificity possible.

But what about the Americas and Oceania, in particular, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand? Today, these four countries are the legacy of relatively recent European imperialism, which resulted in the invasion of lands belonging to Indigenous peoples, European settlement, genocide of Indigenous peoples, and then appropriation of their lands and resources. Therefore, a man who is by ecological ethnicity Canadian is a First Nations man. Similarly, a woman who is by ecological ethnicity Australian is an Aboriginal woman.

One of the ways in which immigrants (non-Indigenous inhabitants) in these four countries are distinguished from the original Indigenous inhabitants is to use hyphenated designations for immigrants. So in the United States, I would be an Indian-American. A person of African descent would be an African-American. And a person of Chinese descent would be a Chinese-American.

What about immigrants whose ancestors are European? Actually, they are simply referred to as Americans, oddly enough. There are likely chauvinistic reasons for the omission of the hyphenated ethnic qualifier, such as to convey ownership of the United States to those of European descent. But I’ll keep the exploration of that topic for another day. What is relevant to the discussion here is that a consistent application of the ecological ethnicity code, instead of the skin color code, is necessary to establish an as objective and unbiased a playing field as possible for describing and discussing human beings. This is why in my writing I refer to Americans of European descent as European-Americans, and not simply Americans, when I need to differentiate between Americans of different ecological ethnicities.

My Answer

Is color-coding human beings meaningful and/or effective? No, because color-coding is not based on science, but on political expediency. More meaningful and effective is understanding people through their ecological ethnicity.

EcoSocial Issues Touched upon

I try to look at the world through a wide KARMALENS, especially when I am thinking about what I take to be the 7 core ECOSOCIAL (ecological + social) issues of our time: Indigenous peoples, environment, identity, gender violence, capitalism, health, and culture. This article touches on most of the issues directly or indirectly, except for perhaps gender violence and health.



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Maya Svevak

Maya Svevak

Maya Svevak is an activist, artist, and author. She writes both non-fiction and fiction and is the creator of the universe of Svevi Avatar. www.mayasvevak.com