The Melanin Effect- Why do we discriminate against darkness?
Updated: Jan 3
“Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”
― Dorothy Parker
When I went to pick out a puppy from a breeder, I was greeted with six cute ones- two of which were tan, two brown, and two black. The tan and brown ones were spoken for, so I gladly took one of the black ones, though I admitted to myself that the lighter colored ones seemed a tad cuter. I found out later this is a real problem in the pet industry called black dog syndrome.
Basically, people are much more likely to adopt a dog or cat if it is light in color. Black dogs, especially big ones, are seen as scary, dangerous, and too hard to photograph. They are more likely to be euthanized at pet shelters than lighter colored dogs because fewer people are willing adopt them. The same goes for cats, with black cats given the extra connotation of being associated with bad luck or evil. Even with birds, black colored birds like ravens and crows are considered "bad" in modern culture, while white ones like doves are seen as "good."
Dark colors, or blackness in general, have long been associated with evil, the unknown, the occult, and bad guys (black hats). We fear what we cannot see, and there is a primal human reaction to darkness and light that goes way beyond our conscious, logical minds.
When you translate that universal human perception to the problem of race and skin color, that's when things get complicated. To recap: skin and hair color have to do with the pigment melanin. Melanin is an evolutionary adaptation to sunlight and dangerous ultraviolet rays that protects those who are exposed to the strongest sunlight- usually at the Equator. Those who live near the Equator have more melanin in their skin, making it darker. Those who live in the extreme polar climates have the least amount of melanin, making it lighter. Most of us are in-between.
So how has skin and hair color turned into a shortcut to signify a human's status and value in the world? There is nothing about skin or hair pigmentation that makes one necessarily superior or inferior. Most of us will protest that - of course we're not racist- but the reality says something else. This deep-seated fear of the darkness has obviously translated into a fear of dark hair and skin, even among the wokest of us all. The challenge of racism today is to acknowledge this deeply buried tendency and call it out for what it is- nonsense.
The preference for light over dark causes all sorts of destructive behaviors- entitlement for the light-skinned and low expectations and resentment for the dark-skinned. Deep down, we all know it is BS, but we keep pretending to be color blind when we're not. Our value as a human being, (and a dog's value as a dog), is so far beyond this crude concept that it shouldn't even be up for debate. Yet here we are after centuries of discrimination that shuns people into the darkness.
In some ways India led the way with its rigid caste system, much of which was based on skin coloration. Those with lightest skin were the top caste, and those with the darkest skin, the Untouchables, were doomed to poverty and the most menial, degrading jobs. The United States got its start thanks to the institution of slavery that subjugated dark-skinned captives from Africa and exploited their labor. But no country on earth is immune to this insidious disease- even today. It even has a name- colorism.
Colorism divides people into races, and then divides them again within races based on whose skin is shaded slightly lighter or darker than others. While African descendants have made great strides in the past century, it is the lighter-skinned blacks like Colin Powell, Barack Obama, and Kamala Harris who have made the most strides because they were seen as less threatening. Colorism is seen within Oriental, Hispanic, Native American, and Islamic communities- usually with the assumption that those with the lighter complexions and blonder hair are the most trustworthy, intelligent and desirable.
One sad by-product of colorism is the attempts by so many to alter their appearance with chemicals to look "whiter". Michael Jackson is thought to not only have bleached his skin, but he also had plastic surgery to make his nose look more "European." Women, especially, have turned to the multi-billion dollar skin bleaching industry to try to lighten up their skin so as to meet unfair and ridiculous Western standards of beauty. And given the reality that blonde-haired women make more money and are more sexually desiable, many more women dye or straighten their hair to fit in and move up.
I wish I could say that skin or hair color doesn't matter to me at all, but there will always be a primitive part of me that looks at a person and compares them to some goofy ideal I have in my head. That said, I think it's important to be aware of race, colorism, and baked-in prejudices, if only because once you are aware of them, you can start to beat them back to the nasty corners of your brain and look for the true beauty and humanity in everyone. Failing to recognize and fight that automatic impulse just lets our perceptions work on autopilot, and that hasn't worked out so well up until now.
Which brings me back to my black dog. I love my dog and the color of her fur has never been an issue. I'm glad that I picked her out, and she has never shown me anything but love and devotion since I brought her home that day. I've also known and worked with a variety of people of many different races and skin tones, and have tried to appreciate them as individuals and fellow human beings. In a way, people are like dogs- if you love them and treat them well, things will work out. If you let them know that they are inferior or defective and treat them that way, you lay the groundwork for hate and resentment.
Once we no longer need these fragile bodies, there will be no need for skin or all the judgements that come with it. Our skin will shrivel up like the rest of our bodies, and the true measure of our lives will be how we treated the others we came in contact with. In the afterlife, there will be no races, no nationalities, and we will be judged only by the content of our character, not the color of our skin (to paraphrase Dr. King). Oh, and I really hope that there are dogs in heaven, because they are walking, wagging, bundles of love, and eternity wouldn't be the same without them.