The Racial Palette: From Black to White

ometime in 1758, Carl Linnaeus – a Swedish biologist, divided the human species into four colour-coded racial categories namely: the white European, the red American, the yellow Asian, and the black African. Years later, in 1779, his protégé, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach – a German anthropologist, went a step further and added a fifth race – the brown Malayan. Today – over two centuries later, the use of colour to delineate racial groups is arguably more prevalent than it has ever been. In fact, the terms, colour and race, have become so interchangeably used that colourism and racism – two ideologically different concepts, are sometimes perceived to be synonymous to each other.

No one is Black – No one is White

The racial palette – as I often call it, is problematic because it seldom paints a clear picture. When the words: white, red, yellow, brown, and black are used in a descriptive context, the skin colour of people rarely comes to mind. We tend to think of the black and white keys on a piano, the yellow skin of a banana, or a bright red strawberry, and this is no random oversight. If an artist was commissioned to paint the portrait of a black man, I very much doubt that they would get the desired effect by using black paint to depict his skin. Nor would they get the desired effect if white paint was used to visually illustrate the skin tone of a white man. This just goes to show that no one is as black, red, yellow, or white as the use of the colours would suggest they are. It also goes to show that whether or not we admit it, we all know this to be true.

Black in one country, Brown in another?

Another issue that comes with the use of the colour taxonomy is the fact that the racial palette is not universal. Different parts of the world tend to have different perceptions when it comes to colour. As such, it is possible and often commonplace for the same person to be seen as black in one part of the world but brown in another – yellow in one country but white in another. Also, owing to a number of factors, ranging from phenotypical traits to socio-political norms, we are often guilty of applying double standards when we supposedly use colour to describe certain people. For instance, a southern European who has the same skin tone as a south American, would most likely be referred to as white, while the latter would more likely be brown. A sub-saharan African or African American with a light skin tone would probably still be referred to as black but a south American of the same shade would probably be referred to as brown. An east Asian with a pale skin tone may be seen by many as yellow, but a central European with the same skin tone would be seen by the same people as white.

Black in one era, Brown in another?

The idea of using a colour-based racial classification system is a bit transient too – because it has simply not been consistent through history. Once upon a time in America, in a not so distant past, the Irish and Italians were not perceived as white, and anyone with as much as one drop of African blood in their veins, was considered black. Even in Britain, few decades ago, Indians and other people of south Asian descent were referred to as black. Today, things are a lot more different. The Irish and Italians have been accepted into the white family, while the black family now has more divisions – the most common of which is called brown. Amongst others, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and W.E.B Du Bois were vocal civil rights activists, who were very light skinned, but identified as black, were perceived as black by society, and fought accordingly for the emancipation of black people, including Africans and people of African descent. Had they grown up in today’s society, they may very well have passed for brown. Other similar historical figures include Langston Hughes – famous for the role he played in the Harlem renaissance, and Katherine Johnson – a renowned mathematician whose story inspired the book ‘Hidden Figures’, and a movie of the same name. They and many others like them were considered black and identified as thus. Judging by their looks, however, one cannot help but wonder if people with the same skin tone as them would be considered black in the context of 21st century conventions.

Science, Sun, and Skin colour

The colour of the human skin comes in different shades, and ranges from darker shades of brown to much lighter ones. Like other physical attributes, skin colour is a genetic product that is passed down from parents to their biological children. From a collective standpoint, people who are closer to the equator, and receive higher amounts of ultraviolet radiation as a result, tend to be darker skinned than people who are farther away from the equator, and receive lower amounts of ultraviolet radiation. As such, the amount of ultraviolet radiation in a particular geographical area plays a key role in determining the skin colour of the indigenes of that area. Notwithstanding, however, we humans are so diverse that even within the same geographical area, skin tones could differ widely. As such, even though it is widely perceived for instance, that most sub-saharan Africans have the same skin colour, reality begs to differ, for research has shown, on a number of occasions, that Africa is the most diverse continent on the face of the earth.

Blackness across time and borders

As humans, our understanding of skin color and the effects that it has on the people who are associated with it has evolved over time and across borders. Whereas, in the 18th century, it was widely accepted that all Africans were black, there is now a case that east Africans, especially the Habesha, are not really black because they share traces of genetic similarities with the Arabs of the middle east. Few decades from now, they may no longer be considered black. The same already counts for some people of African descent who live in the Americas. They are not considered black nor do they consider themselves black, and the rationale behind this is the fact that they have traces of European and ‘indigenous’ genes in their DNA. So even though at some point in history, one drop of African blood was enough to make you black, we are approaching an age where one drop of non-African blood is enough to make you non-black, regardless of your skin tone.

So, who is Black today? and what will they be tomorrow?

Is it really about colour then? Or are we all just colour blind? Did the racial palette exist before European hegemony? Or is it a subjugating Eurocentric tool that was created for the sole purpose of elevating Europeans, regardless of their skin tone, and degrading non-Europeans, regardless of their skin tone? Is it about how we look? Or is it more about where we’re from? These are questions we should all ask ourselves. Today, Barack Obama is considered to have been the first black president of America. What will he be seen as 5 decades from now? Brown? White? If not, why not?