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Skin color has served as a basis for discrimination for as long as history itself.  When and how did “whiteness” become synonymous with “superiority”?

Racism.  It’s all around us.  From the cultural constraints that define us to the stereotypes that categorize us, to the evils of its practice which plague every corner of the planet, it’s there.  We can dispute it, we can accept it, we can loathe it or fight it… But we can not ignore it. 

Throughout the world, value is placed on human life.  For centuries, price tags have been assigned to human beings based on the shade of skin.  No one knows how or why it happened, but somewhere in the course of history, someone decided that the lighter skin, the greater the value.  How?  Why?

For hundreds of years in the US and in Europe, blacks were traded on the open market.  Initially, blacks were traded not out of hatred, but for their commodity value; however, it did not take long for racism to rear its ugly head as the bastard offspring of this gruesome trade.  No explanation is needed to discuss the evils of slavery; the more pressing question is, how did we let it get to that point?

What was it about lighter skinned slaves that brought them favor in the slave-owners’ eyes?  Why were mulatto slaves, more often than not, assigned to work within the home, while darker-skinned slaves were assigned the hardest forms of labor?  Why was it that it was not the skill level of these mulattos, but rather, the traces of whiteness within them, that made them so appealing?

The value of the female body has also taken its roots from the politics of race. Throughout the institution of slavery in the West, white slave-owners were known to rape their female slaves en masse, with no legal consequences. Yet, let a black man look at a white woman for too long, and he could be lynched!  When was it decided that a white woman’s body held more value than a black woman’s?  This double-standard continued long after the abolition of slavery in the West.  Even today, in our so-called “free” societies, many black men feel the wariness of white women clutching their purses as they approach.  And it is no secret that eyebrows are still raised when a black man and a white woman walk down the street together in many Western towns today.

Hitler’s preoccupation with the “purity” of the Aryan race caught on quickly amongst millions of German citizens; by his second year as Führer, the concept of the Aryan race as the superior genealogy was already being honored in the workplace, praised at home, and taught in the schools.  Yet why was it that, out of all the races in the world, the lightest hair and eye color short of albinism was selected as the superior one?

Throughout the world, these standards exist.  In Cuba and Latin America, darker-skinned citizens face discrimination; these racially profiled groups almost always face the most economic hardship.  The same type of racism exists in India; while caste discrimination has been outlawed by the Indian government, this does not stop the social and institutional prejudices carried by the 3,000 year old caste system, which heavily discriminates against poor, predominantly dark-skinned Indian citizens.  In 2001, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, two teenage lovers from different castes were hanged by local villagers enraged by the couple’s refusal to conform to social standards regarding courtship and the caste system.  Though unfathomable to many in the West, it is important to note that this incident occurred just three years after the murder of James Byrd, Jr., an American citizen who was dragged to death from the back of a pick-up truck in a 1998 hate crime in Jasper, Texas.

Indeed, the horrors of racism still exist in America today; the only difference is that today, the racism is not as overt and the discrimination not as biased.  Affirmative Action plans in schools and non-discrimination policies in the work place are just two examples of the fallacies put in place to masquerade against the harsh realities.  But how fragile those masks are!  An incident as blatant as the 1992 Rodney King attack and trial resulted in race riots which wreaked havoc on the streets of Los Angeles.  More recently, and perhaps even more profoundly, the horrific treatment of the predominantly black victims of Hurricane Katrina exposed the US government’s innate racism as an ever-present evil in American society.

Even when not as blatant or overt, the fallacy of the superiority of “whiteness” pervades society.  It is no secret that the media favors lighter skinned actors, musicians, and models.  And while surgical skin lightening isn’t uncommon amongst today’s throng of black celebrities, no one really needs to go Jacko to lighten themselves today; something as simple as a blue pair of contacts or hair straightening will do the trick.  In the corporate world, afros and braids are scarcely seen, as black men cut their hair short and black women straighten their hair in order to look as “professional” as possible.  Ironically enough, millions of whites are flocking to the tanning beds and purchasing aerosol cans of bronzer and spray-on tan; perhaps the grass is always greener.

How did we get here?  Why such emphasis on the concept of dark versus light?  How were the borders of inferiority formed, and by whom?

In all of Judeo-Christian theology and Western mythology, we see white as the symbol of good and black as the symbol of evil.  These definitions enter our world on a daily basis through our own cultural lore: the Prince of Darkness, the darkness of death, and the “the dark side.”  Who decided that it was bad luck for a black cat to cross one’s path?

Hence, in order to address the origins of race, we must first address the origins of color.  A consultation of J.C. Cooper’s Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols reveals the not-so-startling discoveries of the symbolism of color.

According to Cooper, Black is defined as: “primordial darkness; the non-manifest; the Void; evil; the darkness of death; shame; despair; destruction; corruption; grief; sadness; humiliation; renunciation; gravity; constancy.”

White, on the other hand, is defined as: “the undifferentiated; transcendent perfection; simplicity; light; sun; air; illumination; purity; innocence; chastity; holiness; sacredness; redemption; spiritual authority.”

The presence of these cultural symbols can not be denied; indeed, each time we see Christ portrayed through works of art, is he not displayed with flowing hair in a white robe with a white aura about him?  And is not Satan displayed with an aura of darkness?  In Hinduism, black symbolizes “the dark aspect of Kali and Durga.”  In Iranian mythology, darkness symbolizes “the Lord of Lies and darkness.”  In Buddhism, black is a symbol of “the darkness of bondage.”  In almost every culture of the world, “blackness” is associated with some form of negativity.  Why?

One guess is as good as the next… but when a universal code as senseless as these politics of race seems to have taken route, an examination of its origin is certainly in order.  And if the conflict starts with color, then color itself must be addressed.  Universally, “black” means “darkness” and darkness is considered morbid and ungodly.  And although we are not necessarily conscious of the origins of our beliefs, it can not be denied that “black” is often equated with “bad.”  The Black Death, Black Friday, “blackened souls.”  Even in pop culture, our villains are almost always costumed in black.  These traditions originate from somewhere.  Is it possible that these myths have helped shape the human perceptions of black and white, even when it comes to skin pigmentation?  Is it possible that black superstars are striving towards something more “pure” when lightening their skin?  And that whites who seek to darken their skin are striving toward something “cool” and “dangerous”?  Archaic texts and superstition have more impact on our daily lives than we often realize, or are willing to admit.  Subliminal messages take context within the collective human psyche.  Do we not associate the bride in white with virginity, the dress a symbol of her purity?  Do we not associate youth dressed in black, with black nail polish and eyeliner, as a form of teenage angst and rebellion?

Somewhere along the course of history, the symbolism associated with abstract color must have transformed into racial prejudice.  When and how are two questions which will most likely forever remain unanswered.  The mythology of a culture becomes embedded in its collective psyche; and unfortunately, today we are left to deal with the racial Frankenstein into which our archaic symbols have snowballed.

1st November 2006
The Politics Of Race
By Jill A. Bolstridge