[OPINION] It’s time to break the illusion of skin colour in SA
The basic message that skin colour is an understood biological adaptation is, to most audiences, a huge relief. However, the recent racism storm in South Africa and ongoing ethnic-driven hatred elsewhere in the world highlight how far we still have to go.
Immense psychological and societal damage is still being caused by a system of human classifications begun by a small number of European philosophers in the mid-18<sup>th</sup> century.
Education is an important step towards healing the open wounds still in existence, and a key part of this journey will be instilling a deeper understanding of how society has been indoctrinated into accepting institutionalised race distinctions. Skin pigmentation (or ‘colour’) evolved as an adaptation to levels of ultraviolet radiation and is caused by only a handful of genes in our genome – the complete map of our DNA.
So, members of the human species are all but indistinctly similar genetically, but the reason for differences in skin pigmentation genes was due to natural selection depending on the intensity of sunlight in the regions our ancestors found themselves.
But what makes skin a controversial and, at times, contentious topic is that people notice it, whereas many other characteristics are not so obvious; we can’t help it, because we are visually orientated. Our eyes reflect light and when we look at leaves on a tree, for instance, we see the colour green whether we like to or not – it is a crucial judgment imposed after a perception is registered in the brain. But how we judge it is not automatic; that is entirely conditioned by our cultural and social surroundings. The fact that colour was associated with other specific physical and behavioural traits in groups called ‘races’ was a cultural invention and not based on any kind of carefully documented facts or systemic documentation.
A few traveller and explorer reports with examples of people from exotic places were reviewed and races were created.
One of the prurient features that unifies most ethnic classifications is that they are colour-based, with the darkest shades being the most devalued. Unfortunately, over time these irrational and incorrect ideas took on disproportionate importance in society. Of course, many people who want to maintain the unequal status quo do so for their own economic benefit. This is why it is important to press the reset button on education – so the fundamentals of human nature are understood and people realise traits like skin colour are superficial and has no bearing on our moral fibre, character, behaviour or intellectual potential.
For example, when you drive a car, you use GPS to figure out where you are going and not a mid-18th century compass. So why do we persist with these old intellectual structures that have been disproven by so many lines of evidence? This does not mean local beliefs need to be discounted. Science need not discredit people’s belief systems, as we all live as cultural beings. But the message needs to be that there is no inherent quality to skin colour.
A baby, for example, isn’t inherently in favour or against a particular appearance of a person, but it becomes accustomed to seeing various people, and people around them may give positive or negative reinforcement about a particular appearance. This means parents or caregivers have a crucial responsibility to disabuse children of odd notions about skin colour that may have been planted in their heads through societal indoctrination or superstitions.
History does us no favours, however, as Europeans had more of a command of the public relations machine in the past via different languages and the printing press. But while not written down in books, Africans were as much astonished by white people’s appearances, as evidenced in cave drawings and other pieces of art.
There is great potential to move SA forward through education. In this regard, the non-profit Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST) is making immense strides in driving the message that a lack of tolerance for others is one of the biggest ills besetting society today. Their All From One campaign and exhibition, which was recently launched in Soweto following a successful pilot in Johannesburg, heralds the remarkable fact that there is a 99.9% similarity between the chemical sequences making up the genes of any two people.
The celebration of Africa as the birthplace of humankind and the improved public awareness of the shared origins of all people should be applauded and given all the support it deserves – especially because it is through our children that the entrenched notions of race can begin to truly recede.
The "All From One" campaign is committed to promoting four human ideals validated by the palaeo-sciences - tolerance, unity, collaboration and conservation - powerful values that all of us need to take to heart to truly bring about the change societies around the world need. And by taking one step at a time, by focusing on education and debate, we will slowly consign to the scrapheap of history the artificial ethnic classification system still used in society today – this is what PAST hopes to help South Africa do.
We are all from one and the human story of the future will be about humaneness, rather than domination and discrimination.
Nina is a US-based anthropologist and palaeobiologist and the author of the books "Skin: A Natural History", and "Living Colour". She is a scientific advisor to PAST for the "All from One" exhibition and delivered the 8th PAST-Standard Bank keynote lecture at the Soweto Theatre in 2012.
Find out more about PAST's All From One Campaign Here! The All From One exhibition is currently outside Maropeng.
Anti-Racism Week runs from 14 - 21 March - for more information visitt he Anti-Racism Network of Society Website