Skin Color, Eye Color and Arbitrary Hierarchies

Colorism Discrimination HierarchyThe actions that human beings have taken as a result of our ignorance of the fundamental facts about race and racism have caused and continue to cause unquantifiable pain and suffering for our species.

Indeed, I believe that our misunderstanding of race is one of the most significant factors that has greatly decelerated our evolution as a species.

My hope is that this essay will help you to gain profound insight into the twin issues of race, (what it is and what it is not) and racism, (in both its historical and present-day manifestations), ultimately yielding great compassion for both the targets and the perpetrators of racism, coupled with a firm resolve to work diligently toward its eradication on our planet.

Based upon the completion of the  National Institute of Health’s mapping of the entire human genome, many genetic scientists no longer believe that race, as we commonly think of it, even exists. The term has acquired so many unscientific connotations that in this sense it is often replaced in scientific usage by ‘ethnic stock’ or ‘group.’

Since all of my experience with race and racism have occurred within the American context, I shall discuss those issues from the American experience.

I believe that most Americans of all races, associate race with skin color more so than with any other difference. In fact, if the average American were asked to define race in one word, they’d say, “color”, meaning skin color. I believe that the color of a person’s skin is often the first characteristic that many people notice, even before noticing their gender. That was certainly true in the story I remember hearing as a young person of the state trooper who, when asked why he shot a small, African-American boy whom he thought was a crime suspect, replied, “I didn’t see size, nothing. All I saw was color”. I don’t actually know whether that story is true, but my lifetime of experiences as an African-American in the United States tells me that it most certainly could be.

So, since skin color is such a defining characteristic, it’s important that we understand exactly what it is and how we get whatever color our skin is, what determines it.

No matter our race, the color of our skin, hair and eyes is determined by the same thing – melanin, also called pigment. Melanin is a substance, such as the protein hemoglobin, which produces color in both plant and animal tissue. In plants, the protein is chlorophyll, which makes plants green.

Within the human species, there are only two colors of pigment, a brown-black pigment called eumelanin and an orange-red pigment called pheomelanin. With the exception of people who are born with albinism, (a genetic deficiency in which, regardless of race, one is born with white hair, white skin and pink eyes because the melanocytes which make pigment do not function), all human beings on planet Earth have some combination of those two pigments…..the orange-red pheomelanin and the black-brown eumelanin.

Thus, people of Asian and African and European and Native-American decent don’t have different kinds of melanin. The “stuff” in our bodies that gives us, (all of us, across the Earth), our skin color, is exactly the same – pheomelanin and eumelanin. We just possess them in varying degrees across a continuum. The more eumelanin you have, the darker your skin is. The more pheomelanin present in your cells, the lighter your skin is. That’s it. In a nutshell, that’s what skin color’s about.

In order to clearly see how ludicrous it is to judge human beings on the basis of their skin, we need but to think about how ridiculous it would be to judge people on the basis of their eye color, or their hair color. Imagine an entire world order which held as one of its fundamental beliefs, (whether primarily conscious or unconscious), that brown-eyed people are genetically and specifically intellectually superior to blue, green and gray-eyed people because the genes that result in brown-eyes are genetically dominant and the genes that result in blue, green and gray-eyes are recessive. It makes sense on the surface, does it not that genetic dominance is superior to genetic recessiveness? After all, dominance is stronger, isn’t it? And to be stronger is to be superior, right? It’s just common sense, many would say.

Well, in my view, nothing is farther from the truth. Who actually believes that brown-eyed people are as human beings, inherently superior to blue, green and gray-eyed people? It’s utter nonsense, in my view, as is the assertion that people with black and brown hair are superior to people with blonde and red hair because their hair-color genes are dominant. Blonde haired, blue-eyed people are not inherently intellectually or in any other way, inferior to people who have genetically dominant eye and hair color genes. It’s quite apparent to any sane person, that assertions to the contrary are utter craziness.

Yet, melanin, the same, the exact same substance that determines our eye and hair color, also determines the color of our skin. Yet, the fundamental truth is that while we believe that the idea that human beings are superior and inferior to each other based upon eye and hair color is utter nonsense, with regard to skin color, for the past six-hundred years, people of color have suffered indescribable evil on the basis of the color of their skin.

Lauren Nile



  1. Bishop Hamilton says

    Thank you Lauren for explaining this often mis-understood issue.. 
    I do agree that education is the key to understanding racism..

    However we spend much time educating our youth on things that are fruitless that issues needing to be taught has no space left in the classrooms.

    As long as we divide ourselves from each other in church,homes,clubs or any other setting we will have issues such as racism.. 
    The one place that we all should feel togetherness is the main one that we have never agreed upon ( church ) but we believe going there gives us freedom from dealing with the truth that we’re all one…

  2. Jsolomon1 says

    Lauren Nile’s article on race is a rendition rarely appearing in our civic discourse.  She goes deep into the genetic origins of skin color, which serve the racial animus common to the overwhelming number of inhabitants on our planet.  As a consultant on diversity, Ms Nile’s article demonstrates that she has the bonafides to develop meaningful curricula on  race which is sorely needed at all levels of our education institutions.  I wish that educators would seek Ms Nile’s counsel on this important initiative.

  3. JoeWeinstein says

    The article’s info on skin color pigments is profoundly simple and useful, but the article’s focus on just skin color does not adequately explain just why so many people so often heed ‘race’, i.e. ‘racial’ differences in appearance.  The article leaves out the simple but key fact that differences in skin color tend to come with other differences in appearance.  (From a DNA genetics viewpoint that’s not surprising:  genes that help determine appearance are not lone wolves:  roughly speaking, each given gene lives close to other ‘related’ given genes in a given neighborhood of a given chromosome.)  So, while a difference in skin color alone might not be readily noticed, a whole bunch of usually related differences in appearance will be noticed. (They will include, for instance, amount and texture and color of hair, facial shape and other facial characteristics.)  What the article in effect is telling us is that often a casual onlooker will tend to stereotype:  he’ll use just the perceived color difference to infer a ‘racial’ difference  – i.e. to infer the likely presence of the other sorts of differences too.   

    • Lauren says

      Hi Joe,

      Point very well taken.  The question of why so many people so often heed racial differences in appearance is the stuff of yet another potentially interesting essay. We have so much information now that fully substantiates your point, Joe.  I’ve not seen it presented any more clearly, however, than it was in  Boyce Rensberger’s January 31, 1995 Washington Post article, “Forget the Old Labels.  Here’s a New Way to Look at Race.”  Quoting Mr. Rensberger, “Today, anthropologists are aware of many differences that were never noticed before and that don’t correspond to racial categoires.  More important, the more that researchers study people worldwide, the more they realize that if they take into account all the hidden differences, they get a very different picture of what is similar or dissimilar among groups.  If you consider each feature by itself, you see that a person of one race can be more like a person of another race than he or she is like someone of their own race……The bottom line, anthropologists agree, is that the science does not support the idea of races as natural units, now or in the past.  You cannot pick just one or even a few traits and claim that they define a biological category.  People have tried to do this using the  most visible features such as skin color, and facial form, but have ignored all unseen genetic variability which doesn’t fit the visible pattern.”  

      Of course that article was written years before NIH completed mapping the human genome, so now the most compelling verification of your response in right there in our DNA.  If you haven’t already, you may wish to read Spencer Wells’  “The Journey of Man:  A Genetic Odyssey”, and see the video for the results of much more recent research.  A ten minute clip from the video is available online. 

      Thanks again Joe!

      Take care,


    • Lauren says

      Hi Nate,

      Thanks.  That’s one of my goals….to get us to all think intelligently about this issue that has plagued our human family for far too long.  To be thought provoking – that’s the idea!

      Take care Nate


  4. Hstewart10 says

    Obviously my folks and yours spread across the globe, not the glob — well maybe the globe is a glob in space.

  5. Hstewart10 says

    It sounds like we are all homo sapiens.  When folks ask me what race I am I say my folks came from Africa about 40,000 years ago and then spread across the glob so I am just another member of the human species and have got family of all colors.

    • Lauren says

      Thanks Awatts.  Spread the word that truly, “We Are Family”.  Those Pointer Sisters had no clue just how profound they were!  :-)

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