What people have the lightest skin?
What people have the lightest skin?
- Ronald Hall Professor of Social Work, Michigan State University
Ronald Hall does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Michigan State University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Racism is often debated, discussed and analyzed in politics, the classroom and the workplace.
But as a scholar of the politics of skin color, I see colorism as a form of prejudice that’s poorly understood and gets very little attention.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines colorism as “prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.” Western media outlets routinely assume that colorism refers to the preference for lighter skin in communities of color.
Yet this assumption betrays a Western bias. Yes, in places like the U.S., darker-skinned people can experience various aspects of discrimination.
But in some African communities, the U.S. and other parts of the world, light skin may also lead to prejudicial treatment.
Targets for discrimination and abuse
Albinism is a hereditary condition caused by mutations of certain genes that affect the amount of melanin produced by the body. The condition is relatively rare – roughly 1 in 17,000 people worldwide – and rates vary by population group.
But in Africa, certain tribal traditions can place the lives of albino Africans in danger. In an environment where dark skin is the dominant norm, light appearances can invite reverse colorism – and even lead to violence.
Incidents of albino reverse colorism occur most often in sub-Saharan Africa. There, some natives refer to albinos using the pejorative “inkawu,” which, in English, roughly equates to “white baboon.”
Other words that refer to albinos are “isishawa” – meaning a person who is cursed – and “zeruzeru,” which is predominantly used in Tanzania and means “ghostlike.”
Tanzania is notable for another reason: It has the largest number of documented murders of albino people on the entire continent.
There are certain cultural traditions that facilitate the abuse and murder of albino people. A report prepared for the United Nations in 2012 noted that a tradition existed in the Maasai tribe to place a newborn albino child at the gate of a cattle barn. Cattle were then released to graze, and they would often trample the newborn to death. If the child somehow survived, it would be allowed to live.
Beyond the imminent physical danger albino newborns can find themselves in, the birth of an albino child can create a host of challenges for the rest of the family, which can find itself newly stigmatized. For these reasons, some families see their albino children as a curse.
Other albino children, as well as adults, may end up mutilated, their body parts used to concoct potions and make trinkets. Such forms of violence are reserved for the albino population alone.
The statistics are devastating: In Tanzania, only 2% of people born with albinism live to the age of 40.
In Africa, there are activists who are working to end the stigmatization of albino people.
Sister Martha Mganga, who was born with albinism, has been holding community events in Tanzania for over 30 years to help dispel myths about albinism. Through her organization, Peacemakers for Albinism and Community, she has placed over 150 albino children in schools where they’ll be safe.
Another activist, an albino South African lawyer and model named Thando Hopa, sees it as her mission to change the perception of albino people.
In a 2021 essay, she reflected on her experiences:
“As I grew older, I constantly experienced covert, overt, and borderline obsessive interrogation of my human and biological value, my normality, my general intellectual competence, my racial positioning, and social desirability – all linked to my having albinism.”
Yet reverse colorism is no less an issue among African-Americans. While many scholars and journalists maintain that colorism manifests as discrimination against those having darker skin, it doesn’t always play out that way.
In fact, the first African American litigation centered on colorism was brought by a light-skinned African American named Tracey Morrow, who, in 1990, claimed she was discriminated against in performance evaluations by her dark-skinned supervisor at the IRS, where she worked.
Oprah Winfrey’s 2015 documentary “Light Girls” is one of the few Western works that tackled the issue of reverse colorism. The documentary features personal accounts of light-skinned Black women, some of whom were brought to tears as they described being rejected or discriminated against by their community for not being “Black enough.”
The complexions of people of African descent across time and space are varied – from light-skinned sociologist W.E.B. DuBois to the dark-skinned former prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba – and myriad variations in between.
Perhaps mankind is always destined to differentiate itself for social, political and economic reasons. But while racial discrimination persists, it has become more difficult to divvy people up by racial group due to the growth of multiracial populations.
Skin color, on the other hand, is starkly visible – making it an ideal canvas for discrimination.
How to Determine Your Skin Tone and Undertone
It’s something you’re born with, but often your skin tone is something you might not even know how to describe accurately yourself. If you wear any kind of face makeup at all, it’s crucial you understand your skin tone to be able to find the correct shade of foundation and concealer. Plus, learning your skin tone can help you to choose flattering shades for clothing, lipstick, hair color, and more. Unlike yesteryears when the categories of “light”, “medium”, and “dark” were enough to find a decent match, today’s wide assortment of face products and foundation lines with more targeted shade ranges warrants a better understanding of our skin’s unique hue.
Figuring out your exact skin tone doesn’t have to be a confusing affair though. You’ve just got to learn a few new terms first.
Skin Tones 101
First of all, you’re going to want to become familiar with two concepts: surface color and undertone.
Think of surface color as how you’d describe your skin to someone else, i.e, “light”, “tan”, “dark”, etc.
To make it easier for you, there are already four (broad) categories of color that your skin might fall into, which are:
Fair — The lightest range of skin tones. You likely burn easy, and have light or red hair.
Light — Generally those with skin considered “light” have warmer undertones (we’ll get to that in a second) than those with fair skin. You likely are able to tan in the summer.
Medium — You have a tan skin tone with warm golden or olive undertones.
Dark — The deepest range of skin tones.
You likely already have a good general idea of your surface color, but if you’re struggling to differentiate between, for example, fair and light, there are a couple things you can do to help.
Certain external factors can have an effect on your overall skin tone. Tanning is one of the most common examples, however, rosacea, hyperpigmentation, dark spots, acne, and general redness can all have an effect on how you perceive your surface color.
How to tell your surface color? There are a few tried and true steps you can take.
1. Ask a friend
Probably the simplest way to determine your surface color is to ask a friend or family member. Especially if you’re on the fence between two color categories, having a second opinion can be helpful.
2. Look at your jawline
Oftentimes, your jawline is the best place to see your “pure”, unobstructed surface color. Because the jawline tends to be unaffected by typical skin conditions, it can be a great area to get a sense of your true color.
3. Get a test done at your local beauty store
Ah, technology! In the past few years, many beauty stores have started offering skin tone/foundation matching tests that you can have done in less than 10 minutes. If you won’t settle for anything less than a professional opinion, this is the method for you.
Determining Your Skin Undertone
Onto undertone, often one of the most misunderstood (or ignored) elements of skin tone. Basically, undertone is exactly what it sounds like; the color tone underneath the surface color of your skin. Unlike surface color, which can change with a tan or certain brightening products, your undertone remains constant.
The three undertones are:
Cool — Characterized by a bluish undertone to the skin.
Warm — A golden or peach-colored undertone.
Neutral — A neutral undertone is neither cool nor warm. For darker skin tones, a neutral undertone would have an olive tint.
Determining your undertone requires a little more work than your overtone. It’s unfortunately more of a guessing game than with your surface color, but we’ve got several accurate methods you can use. Our recommendation? Try all of them and use the average of your results to confirm your undertone.
1. Look at your jawline
What’s your favorite color of jewelry to wear? If you tend to favor silver earrings and necklaces, chances are you’re cool-toned. If you like gold jewelry, you’re probably warm-toned. Think both look stellar on you? If you can pull off both, you’re likely a true neutral.
2. Check your veins
Grab your wrists and check the veins under them. Those with warm undertones have green colored veins, while blue veins are a sign of a cool undertone. If your veins look bluish-green, you may have a neutral undertone.
3. Use your eyes
While your eye color doesn’t have the final say, typically speaking, green and brown eyes signal a warm undertone, while blue or grey eyes belong to cooler undertones.
4. Use a piece of paper
Grab a piece of bright white paper and hold it up against your bare face. If your skin looks yellowish against the sheet, you’re warm toned. Looking pink? Cool toned. If you look more green or grey, you could be neutral toned.
Have a better idea of your undertone now? The good news is, most foundation ranges now carry a shade range inclusive to most skin tones and undertones.
Which Mineral Air Four-in-One Foundation Shade is Right for You?
Our Complexion Starter Kit comes in 11 versatile shades:
Porcelain — Fair to light skin with cool undertones
Light — Light skin with warm undertones
Bisque — Light to medium skin, neutral undertones
Medium — Medium skin with warm undertones
Medium Tan — Medium to tan skin with warm undertones
Sienna — Tan to deep skin, cool undertones
Amber — Tan to deep skin, warm undertones
Tan — Tan to deep skin with warm undertones
Deep — Deep skin with neutral undertones
Mocha — Deep skin with cool undertones
Espresso — Dark skin, neutral undertones
Mineral Air Four-in-One Foundations can be worn alone or mixed for a perfect color match. For a glowing, satin finish that is light as air and has 10 hour staying power, with our skin loving ingredients is the perfect foundation for your beauty routine.
If you’re having a hard time determining your correct skin tone, have no fear. It takes time, patience, and sometimes a bit of trial and error before you find the perfect products to match your hue. We hope this explainer helped!
The varying skin colors of Africa: light, dark, and all in between
A team of geneticists led by Sarah Tishkoff, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, has shown that there is a huge amount of variation of skin color within Africa, ranging from skin as light as some Asians to the darkest skin on a global level.
Skin color is one of humankind’s most striking—and stunningly variable—traits. With a new study of diverse African groups, a team of geneticists led by Sarah Tishkoff, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor and the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor in Genetics and Biology, has broadened and deepened an understanding of the genes that color human skin.
The findings, published in the journal Science, shed light on human evolution and inform knowledge about the genetic risk factors for conditions such as skin cancer.
“When people think of skin color in Africa, most would think of darker skin,” Tishkoff says, “but we show that within Africa there is a huge amount of variation, ranging from skin as light as some Asians to the darkest skin on a global level and everything in between.”
While scientists have probed the genetic basis of skin color before, most of those studies were done on Europeans. To gain a fuller picture of the globe’s genetic diversity, Tishkoff, along with postdoctoral researcher Nicholas Crawford, the study’s lead author, and a large, international team of collaborators, examined more than 4 million points in the genomes of nearly 1,600 study volunteers from ethnically and genetically diverse populations in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Botswana.
The researchers found four key areas of the genome where variation closely correlated with skin color differences. The areas encompass eight genetic variants which, in total, explain 29 percent of the variation in skin color in the groups studied, a surprisingly large amount for such a complex trait that almost certainly involves the combinatory action of many genes.
One gene that the group studied, MFSD12, had been found to be differentially expressed in the light and dark skin of people with vitiligo, a condition where the skin loses pigment in some areas, but was otherwise little understood.
The team found variants of MFSD12 that were associated with both very dark and relatively light skin. Mutations in and around this gene that were associated with dark pigmentation were present at high frequencies in populations of Nilo-Saharan ancestry, who tend to have very dark skin, as well as across sub-Saharan populations, except the San of southern Africa, who tend to have lighter skin.
Tishkoff and colleagues also identified these variants, as well as others associated with dark skin pigmentation, in South Asian Indian and Australo-Melanesian populations, who tend to have the darkest skin coloration outside of Africa, pointing to the possibility of an early human migration event that carried these genetic variants out of Africa along the southern Asian coast.
Not content to simply conduct genomic analyses, the team performed functional assays, demonstrating the function of MFSD12. Deleting this gene in zebrafish and mice changed the coloring of both species. These new insights in skin cell biology contribute to an understanding of pigmentation disorders as well as skin cancer.
A variant in another gene, SLC24A5, which is associated with lighter skin pigmentation, seemed to have been introduced from the Middle East into East Africa. In other genes linked with skin color, the researchers discovered that they play roles in albinism and melanoma risk.
Some of the genetic variants the researchers identified, coding for both light and dark skin pigmentation, were quite ancient, between 300,000 and 1 million years old, meaning that skin color variation seems to have been present since before the emergence of Homo sapiens.
Tishkoff noted that the work underscores the diversity of African populations and the lack of support for biological notions of race.
“Many of the genes and new genetic variants we identified to be associated with skin color may never have been found outside of Africa because they are not as highly variable,” Tishkoff says. “There is so much diversity in Africa that’s not often appreciated. There’s no such thing as an African race. We show that skin color is extremely variable on the African continent, and that it is still evolving.”
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 26, 2017 edition of the Penn Current Express.
- Katherine Unger Baillie Writer