As physical traits go, skin color is the one that has meant the most in modern history. Colors are inherently neutral, but our minds and culture give them meaning. There is no universal preference for a specific skin color. In the last 400 years, however, two important factors have come to influence cultural attitudes toward color, and both have created preferences for lighter skin. The first is the preference for paler skin based on its association with freedom from outdoor toil. This is a widespread and probably universal preference among agricultural people, one that arose independently in different societies. Pale skin with little or no evidence of tanning indicated relative wealth and some degree of privilege. The second preference is for light over dark--strictly speaking, white over black--that derives from Christian (originally, Zoroastrian) symbolism.
Nina G. Jablonski is the author of Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color [University of California Press, $29.95].
The dual preferences for paleness have sometimes reinforced one another, as in the valorizing of the "English rose," a woman whose almost transparent skin and blushing cheeks connoted both freedom from outdoor labor and incomparable virtue. Social pressures for "a tanned, healthy look" have led many such roses to spend time on the beaches of southern Europe or in tanning parlors, with predictable consequences: wrinkled, leathery skin and skin cancer.
The American economy was literally built on a foundation of African slave labor. The establishment of the transatlantic slave trade and hereditary slavery was rationalized because the light-dark polarity had been extended to the human sphere and became an index of human worth. As the transatlantic slave trade became more lucrative, the moral polarity of skin colors was accentuated to the extent that light and dark were respectively associated with human and animal, creating one of the longest-lasting and most pernicious patterns of bias that the world has ever known.
Apartheid was officially eliminated in South Africa over 20 years ago, but differential treatment of people according to skin color continues. It is hard to break a 300-year-long tradition of associating skin color with character and expectations of performance. An "apartheid of the mind" still weighs on the country's psyche.
Throughout Brazil's colonial history, interbreeding between Portuguese, Indians, and Africans was tolerated. Segregation by color, as practiced in the United States and South Africa, could not be established in Brazil because there was no agreement as to classification. Tolerance of diversity was a practical necessity, but a tacit skin-color hierarchy emerged nonetheless. Darker skin and a greater proportion of assumed African ancestry generally conspire to lower a person's social position.
Attitudes toward skin color in India have developed over more than two thousand years and reflect considerations of class and caste. Cultural preference for light skin is strong, and many young people of both sexes feel compelled to use skin lightening creams to enhance their chances of securing a good marriage partner or job.
Since the eighth century, the Japanese have considered themselves imbued with an esteemed "whiteness," which refers not only to skin complexions but also to spiritual purity. Pale skin in Japan has been considered an essential characteristic of feminine beauty that could compensate for other physical shortcomings. Cultural avoidance of sun exposure is entrenched, and Japan today is the largest market for skin lightening agents.
The rise of racist extremism in Poland has been one of the country's most troubling features since the fall of communism. Skinheads constitute a strong and often violent subculture in Poland, and their racist attacks are often focused on the Roma or on recent immigrants with dark skin or non-European attire.