Posted on December 27, 2010

Different Colours, but the Same Skin

Jill Stark, The Age (Melbourne), December 26, 2010

AN AUSTRALIAN-produced documentary aims to debunk racist theories on skin colour by asserting that light-skinned people are mutants of their black ancestors, and there is no such thing as race.

The film explores how skin colour is an “evolutionary balancing act”, protecting the body from harmful ultraviolet rays but also ensuring it gets enough sunlight to produce essential vitamin D.

Based on 20 years of research by American anthropologist Nina Jablonski, the SBS documentary will show mass migration of people from Africa to countries further away from the equator, with lower UV levels, caused people’s skin pigmentation to lighten over time.

“Our original ancestral configuration as a species was dark pigmentation, that is our heritage. So, all of the people who have lightly pigmented skin in Europe and Eastern Asia, and their descendants, those we can think of as mutants,” Professor Jablonski told The Sunday Age from her home in Pennsylvania, where she teaches at Penn State University.

The documentary, Skin Deep, explains that skin colour must balance the body’s need for two vitamins critical to human survival.

“It has to protect a person against the damage to DNA and breakdown of folic acid caused by ultraviolet radiation, and at the same time it has to permit some ultraviolet radiation to penetrate into the skin to make Vitamin D. The amount of pigment that you have in the skin is a balancing act, a compromise between those two conflicting needs,” Professor Jablonski said.

Vitamin D aids development and bone strength while folic acid is essential to reproductive success, protecting against birth defects such as spina bifida.

Putting a new spin on traditional notions of race, Professor Jablonski said pigmentation was an “evolutionary flexible” trait, adaptable to the environment to ensure survival of the species. “What that means for racism and our social interpretation of skin is that skin colour changes quickly and you can have lightly pigmented people who became lightly pigmented at different points and places in our evolutionary history. So you can’t really refer to somebody as belonging to a white race or a black race because these pigmentation events have occurred more than once and the whole idea that pigmentation equals race is simply nonsense,” she said.

Professor Jablonski’s research into skin colour began while teaching at the University of Western Australia in the early 1990s.

She said early migrants to Australia from Northern Europe paid the price for being naturally mismatched to their environment: suffering terrible sunburn and skin cancer.

But because they mostly lived off the land, their diet was high in folate, which helped them to survive.

However, without the advent of sun protection and sunscreen, their skin colour may have darkened over generations to adapt to the environment, Professor Jablonski said.

The documentary crew also visited Kenya to interview the black parents of two albino girls, Grace and Martha. Professor Jablonski said the girls – who are a thousand times more likely to get skin cancer – were fortunate their family was well-educated and know to protect them from the sun.

Melbourne-based director Franco Di Chiera said the documentary had the potential to completely change the way we view race. “Our perceptions of what that means have created a lot of conflict in the world but at the same time what that has meant is that modern science has been loath to explore issues related to skin colour because it’s such a sensitive subject,” he said.

Professor Jablonski’s work has largely been well received around the world but she has also received hate mail from white supremacists.