Tuesday, January 19, 2010


In an oped piece in today's New York Times, the journalist Shankar Vedantam makes a case for "colorism." He holds that perceptions of skin-tone variation affect the way people are judged--and their life chances--across the board.

This claim is too sweeping. To be sure, we have heard that in some African American families there is a tendency to favor children with lighter skin. Some darker-skinned blacks, like Thomas Sowell, have complained of this effect later in life.

Still, if Vedantam's claim were true all the tanning salons across the nation would have to close. Beaches would be deserted in the summer months. And actors like George Hamilton, famous for his deep tan, would have no chance in Hollywood.

Surely the key to the matter is that colorism becomes significant when it interacts with other socio-economic factors. If rich and powerful people chose to go about with rich tans, they will do so.

Mr. Vedantam also brings up his native India, where, he says, skin lighteners are popular cosmetic items. He should have noted that the Sanskrit term "varna" (colror) means caste. The disapprobation of dark skins in India has to do with the fact that they are common among the lower castes, where centuries of prejudice has produced lower economic status. It is only when it is perceived as an index of such status that color becomes significant.

For his part, George Hamilton need not worry.



Blogger Stephen said...

For artificial tans, don't forget the orange skin (to match his dyed hair) of Ronald Reagan.

2:00 PM  

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