The Skin We are In

The other day I heard a story on the radio that has really struck me.  It was a story about skin bleaching.  Apparently it is a common practice for certain darker skinned people groups to apply toxic substances to their skins in the hopes to make their complexion lighter.  I was stunned.  When I hear skin bleaching it brings to mind the tabloid rumors of Michael Jackson.  Skin bleaching is a billion dollar industry crossing the globe and is not just reserved for eccentric mega stars. 

As I was mulling this over, my husband and I happened to walk our dogs past the neighborhood tanning salon. The parking lot was packed. "Ah, the signs of spring (or for those who are going south- spring break)", I said to my husband.   Pity the poor person who turns up on the beach with winter white legs.  I am glaringly aware of my two slug legs every Wednesday when I play indoor tennis. Apparently I haven't gotten the memo: the use of tanning creams and lotions.   Even if I wasn't planning on using the cancer beds of the local salon, I can still "color" my legs with the helps of creams and lotions. 

Hmm.  Creams to get lighter and creams to get darker.  Sounds like an Alice in Wonderland predicament. Or, the upper/downer scenarios of a by-gone era.  Why are we not content with the skin we are in? 


I remember reading Henry Louis Gates, Jr's memoir, "Colored People".  In it, he explains how one side of the family was lighter skinned than the other. Those on the light skinned side had a tendency to "lord" it over the others at family gatherings or simple decisions: they were the ones who "knew best".   However,  when the "black is beautiful" movement gained speed in the 1960's, those fairer skinned family members lost their clout. 

To me, it all seems so silly.  Skin color and its ramifications can change so quickly.  When I was working on an oncology floor I still remember one patient- a beautiful, fair-skinned, "Irish lass".  Over the course of months with chemotherapy, radiation, bone marrow transplantation, anti-rejection medication, and a myriad of other treatments, her liver started failing.  She became more than a little jaundiced.  Her entire body turned dark-khaki green to blackish.  She no longer looked fair skinned as her ancestors.   Any one meeting her in that current state would think that she was from a different ethnic group.  Yet she was the same person, with the same DNA and the same thoughts and feelings. 

It makes me wonder, why and when did lighter skin became the social norm of betterment?  It has been noted by sociologists that the cooler climates produced people with lighter skin tones and lighter eyes.  Conversely the hotter climates caused the skin to produce more melanin and pigmentation as protection from sun damage.   When I think of the places where mankind originated, they were hotter and sunnier. The skin tone was darker to protect it in that environment.  It was in those places that civilization was born and grew.  It was there that ideas sprung up and societies thrived. 

It just amazes me when any people group think that the look of another people group is more appealing.  By whose standards?  Is it aesthetics or something else? Where did these lighter skin folks come from and who, the heck did they think they were?  Are these the "barbarians" that overthrew Roman civilization?  Were they as sophisticated as their darker skin cousins? 

Is it a hang over from colonization?  In the case of colonization, it amazes me that one people group can come in to another's country and start telling them what to do or not to do.  It is the utmost rude guest. Yet even before the period of colonization and imperialism, there were arguments between northern (generally lighter skinned) and southern (generally darker skinned) groups in many countries.  Is skin color just an easy way to keep track of who is part of our clan and who isn't?  Skin color is a large visible description, one that can be seen from a distance.  It is an easy marker.  In the old days it was easy to group people by that glance of physical features as the genetic mixing of people groups hadn't occurred too much.

Is it a question of socioeconomics? Tanning or having the sun darken one's skin was all about economics especially among the agricultural societies. To have a tan would mean that you worked outside and not a person of leisure, i.e. wealthy.  A tan would denote that you were a common laborer. 

Yet as modern people, aren't we doing the same thing?  We are allowing a quick judgment, "you are or are not part of my tribe" by the glance at one another.  We do it with physical features:  skin color, aging- color of hair or lines on face, weight, height.  We do it with consumable goods:  cars, jewelry, handbags, shoes, clothing, houses.   We do it with accomplishments: education, neighborhoods, type of jobs.  People can make quick assessments without any thought of truly getting to know one another. 

What about you?  Have you ever thought about the skin you are in? Do you want to change it? What are the social implications of lighter or darker skin? Does it matter? Do you make judgements based on what you see? 

In all honesty, I do like a little color to my skin.  I like the feel of the warmth of the sun on my skin and even with the best sunblock, I still get tan. For me it is a natural consequence of being outside.  But the whole idea of tanning and skin color does remind me to keep an open mind in meeting people.  Someone's skin color might be the biggest thing I see about a person but it is not the only thing.  It is just the tip of the iceberg on that person's personality and soul.  When I connect to someone beyond the superficial of skin color, I am letting go my own superficiality of my skin tone.  I don't need to look lighter or darker to be connected. The person in me can feel comfortable to connect with the person in you. 

I am reminded of the old children's Sunday school song, "Red and yellow, black or white.  They are precious in His sight.  Jesus loves the little children of the world."  The descriptions may sound politically incorrect but if we can remember that all people and all people's coloring are precious to God, maybe we would be more content with our own skin.