When we categorize people into “races,” we do so using a number of physical characteristics, but especially skin color. Our racial system is based on the idea that skin color is a clearly distinguishing trait, especially when we use terms like “black” and “white,” which we generally conceive of as opposite colors.
Of course, because race is socially constructed, there’s actually enormous diversity within the categories we’ve created, and great overlap between them, as we’ve forced all humans on earth into just a few groupings. And terms like “black” and “white” don’t really describe the shades of actual human skin.
Artist and photographer Angelica Dass has an art project, Humanae, that illustrates the tremendous diversity in skin color (via co.CREATE, sent in by Dolores R., Mike R., and YetAnotherGirl. She uses an 11×11 pixel of individuals’ faces to match them to a specific color in the Pantone color system, which catalogs thousands of hues and is used in many types of manufacturing to standardize and match colors. She then takes a photo of them in front of a background of their Pantone color.
Currently the project is very heavily focused on people we’d generally categorize as White — there are a few individuals from other groups, but not many, and in no way does it represent “every skin tone,” as I’ve seen it described in some places. So that’s a major caveat.
That said, I do think the project shows how reductive our system of classifying people by skin tone is, when you look at the range of colors even just among Whites — why does it make sense to throw most of these people into one category and say they’re all physically the same in a meaningful way that separates them from everyone else (and then connect those supposedly shared physical traits to non-physical ones)? And which part of the body do we use to do so, since many of us have various shades on our bodies? Or which time of year, since many of us change quite a bit between summer and winter?
Maru sent in a similar example; French artist Pierre David created “The Human Pantone,” using 40 models. We think racial categories make sense because we generally think of the extremes, but by showing individuals arranged according to hue, the project highlights the arbitrariness of racial boundaries. Where, exactly, should the dividing lines be?
Via TAXI.Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
Guest — July 19, 2012
I'm a whitey (with part black ancestry)
It amuses me people would never guess
Dianna Fielding — July 19, 2012
"Of course, because race is socially constructed, there’s actually
enormous diversity within the categories we’ve created, and great
overlap between them, as we’ve forced all humans on earth into just a
few groupings. "
I know I'm being obtuse, but the way this sentence is worded implies that without our social construction of race there would not be a variety in skin tones. However, skin tones came first.
Rishi — July 19, 2012
Where, exactly, should the dividing lines be?"
Any pantone the same or lighter than mine, should be white. Any pantone darker than mine should be black.
j/k I can never pass for white, trust me, I've tried.
Kelly H — July 19, 2012
I was in a group photo a little while ago, and there was one person of colour in the group, a woman I had thought was an Aboriginal Australian until I found out she's a New Zealander, and looking at the photo later, I noticed that the WOC was closer in skin tone to some of the other white folk than I was.
Much like how 75-5C is closer in colour to 61-6C than to 489C.
parigote — July 19, 2012
There's also this impressive piece at the National Gallery of Art:
Kiwi — July 20, 2012
Hi, I'm a New Zealander...
I find this interesting but hard to relate to society here. From my life experience in NZ it's acceptable to class someone as "white" but "black" is not viewed as a race. Admittedly Africans or African Americans don't make up a large population base but I've always found it interesting that if your roots are Maori, Cook Island, Tongan, Samoan, Fijian etc your heritage and "race" is something strongly recognized and to be proud of....This is great and makes our S.Auckland communities rich with culture. However; if your roots are English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh or even European then it doesn't matter..... you are simply classed as White, or if your family has been here a while, possibly Pakeha.
Billyjoenan — July 20, 2012
This is an interesting art project. When dealing with social diversity, however, I suggest looking at socially constructed elements such as culture, rather than skin tones.
stardreamer42 — July 20, 2012
The people who have said it represents "every skin tone" are making the same unacknowledged assumption that results in calling a beige band-aid or crayon "flesh-colored".
Eric — July 20, 2012
I do this with my high school class and the students see how they are as a class I have a rainbow of colors (Jesse Jackson stuff) in the class. Also use the Race as an Illusion web site,
http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm for the class to demonstrate the idea of race and the lines are really blurring in society.
pduggie — July 20, 2012
"When we categorize people into “races,” we do so using a number of physical characteristics, but especially skin color. "
meh. ppl have ided people from the Indian subcontinent as Caucasians for ages, even though dark.
" why does it make sense to throw most of these people into one category and say they’re all physically the same in a meaningful way that separates them from everyone else"
wikipedia says "The physical traits of Caucasoid crania are still recognised as distinct (in contrast to Mongoloid and Negroid races) within modern forensic anthropology. A Caucasoid skull is identified, with an accuracy of up to 95%, by the following features..."
Kteachergirl — July 20, 2012
damali ayo has done work very similar to this - almost 10 years ago out of portland oregon.
Guest — July 20, 2012
I wonder what what happen if you took pairs of people from these photos who come out with the same pantone colours, but very different facial features, and asked people to classify them as "black" or "white"? I imagine people WOULD divide them into categories on the basis of their features, even though their skin colour was identical.
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