Transforming the Discussion on Race

As America is having one of its periodic discussions about race the past few weeks, it is time to consider how educators can induce a transformation to the conversation. When we talk about race, we are discussing skin color, which is determined by the amount of pigmentation in one’s skin. More specifically, a polymer (a repeating chemical pattern that forms a very large molecule) referred to as melanin.  The first time I heard of melanin was not in a biology class, but from Richard Pryor on a Tonight Show appearance.  Pryor discussed all kinds of humorous situations the high melanin level in his skin had caused.  Not really funny, it was only Pryor’s extraordinary comedic talent that made it seem so.

I know I am not alone in lacking a formal education as to what causes skin to appear in various colors in humans.  And rest assured, there are plenty of disreputable sources of information in American society to fill the void.  If we are going to have a reasonable discussion about race, it is time we educate ourselves what exactly race is.

The higher amount of melanin one has in their skin, the darker their skin will appear. This polymer also determines hair and eye color. Individuals with a high degree of melanin will have brown eyes, less melanin results in blue/green eyes. The same relationship holds with hair, the more melanin in one’s hair, the darker it is.

Melanin regulates skin color by the process of light absorption.  Light received by the skin is reflected back via a dermis layer below the melanin layer.  As the reflected light passes through melanin, it is absorbed.  The energy of the absorbed light triggers vibration in melanin molecules.  This vibrational energy is then converted to thermal energy and released as heat.  If the melanin level is low, little light is absorbed and skin appears white.  If the melanin level is high, more light is absorbed and skin appears darker.

Eye color is created in the same fashion.  Persons with low levels of melanin will have blue eyes.  The iris scatters light in the same manner as water droplets do to create a rainbow.  Blue light is scattered most and that is the color of light reflected out the eye.  Persons with high levels of melanin absorb most of the light reflected out and consequently, have darker eyes.

Thus, when we classify human beings by skin color, it is the same as if we classify by eye or hair color.

Melanin content regulates how skin responds to ultraviolet (UV) exposure as well as vitamin D production in the body.  Melanin absorbs UV radiation and having a lot of it protects against UV damage (sunburn), so dark skin is advantageous if you live around the equator.  People with high melanin content require longer exposure to sunlight to produce the necessary amount of vitamin D in the body, while people with low amounts of melanin do not require as much.  Thus, having little melanin is advantageous the farther away you live from the tropics.   Indeed, that is how evolution worked out as this map of skin color distribution from 1500 AD (before modern transportation and mass migration-voluntary and otherwise) demonstrates.

Image: Wiki Commons

The human race originated in Africa. All humans can trace their maternal ancestral roots to a single woman who lived in Africa about 150,000 years ago. All humans can also trace their paternal ancestral roots to a single man who lived in Africa 60,000 years ago. They were not Adam and Eve as in the biblical sense, they were one of many humans alive back then. However, those two individuals are the only ones from that era whose ancestry has survived to the current day.

The DNA of all humans is 99.9% identical. The National Geographic Genographic Project can use these small variations to trace one’s ancestral migration route from Africa.

Below is my maternal migration route (my mother was Irish).  My maternal line migrated out of Africa into the Middle East about 60,000 years ago, moved into West Asia 55,000 years ago, made their way into Western Europe about 22,000 years ago, and finally into what we now know as Ireland around 10,000 years ago.

MaternalAnd here is my paternal migration route (my father is Polish).  My paternal line made a similar migration out of Africa but took a right turn into Central Asia 35,000 years ago, eventually settling into Eastern Europe sometime around 15,000 years ago.

Paternal jpeg

As our ancestors migrated into colder climes, humans with genetic mutations resulting in an evolutionary advantage in those climes tended to survive and reproduce over those who did not. The end result, those whose ancestors migrated to Northern Europe have low levels of melanin and light skin and eye color. Light skin color is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that recent research indicates occurred 8,000 years ago.

Note that the genetic mutation that caused lighter shades of skin occurred thousands of years after human migration into Europe.  That’s right, my European ancestors, along with yours if you are white, were black upon their arrival into Europe.  That notwithstanding, skin color is used to classify individuals and justify the most cruelest behaviors targeting those deemed to have an improper melanin level in their skins.

How to change that?  I have no illusions that change will come overnight.  It will occur most probably like water wearing away on rock.  Over time, consistent pressure will wear the rock down.  As educators, we must insist any discussion involving race acknowledge precisely what the true differences are between the races, a minute, skin deep layer of polymer called melanin.  And we must insist those with racists attitudes describe in scientifically rigorous detail how that polymer contributes to the characteristics of the race being disparaged or exalted.

In a way, we need to disrupt the discussion on race in the same manner hi-tech start ups disrupt existing business models.  Why should we discuss race based on an antiquated social construct used to justify slavery?  Would we consider discussing astronomy as if the Copernican revolution never took place?  Certainly we would regard those who would to be cranks.  Any call for a discussion on race must be framed in its proper context or that discussion will be pointless.

Think of a world were people were subjected into slavery due to their eye color, or denied access to education and jobs due to their hair color. Can you imagine a world where Martin Luther King Jr. would have to say; “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their eyes, but by the content of their character?” Sounds like some sort of bizarro world, or a Twilight Zone episode. However, that is the world we live in. If you were to judge someone by eye color the same way some will judge a person by their skin color…it’s the same damn thing.

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