The Color of Normal

As a white guy, my whole life I have heard comments about white “chicken legs” when shorts make their first appearance of the summer. Comments like “Jesus man, don’t those legs ever see the sun?”

Well no, they don’t, actually. All winter long I wear long trousers to stay warm. And in the summer, I’m careful not to intentionally expose my legs to the sun too much because they burn easily. So no, I don’t expose my skin to the sun just to darken my coloration. Because melanoma is no laughing matter.

For as long as I can remember, all the women of my family and their female friends, “laid out” in the summer to tan. In those days, nobody worried about skin cancer. They didn’t use sunscreen, but instead applied a variety of “tanning lotions” designed to make you get darker quicker. Because among white people, being pale is seen as unattractive, while having a nice dark tan is appealing. Go to any small town in America today and odds are good that you’ll find a tanning salon in a strip mall next to a Subway and a pay-day loan place. Men go shirtless at the beach, and while working on the farm in the summer because having a “farmer’s tan” on just your lower arms is seen as tacky.

But the opposite seems to be the case among black people, where being too dark is often stigmatized. A huge array of skin lightening creams has emerged on the market, with people bleaching the pigmentation from their skin to a near-albino state. Being too dark is undesirable. There’s a belief that lighter is more attractive. We all watched as Michael Jackson transformed himself from a normal, and very handsome, African American man into a ghostly pale surgically-altered freak of nature. Ghana has recently banned such creams in the interest of public health and safety.

In evolutionary terms, melanin played a very important role in protecting human skin from the equatorial sun where our species first evolved in Africa. Think of it as mother nature’s SPF50. When humans moved north, closer to the poles, the sun’s rays came at less direct angle, and the long winter months of near-darkness meant that melanin was suddenly less important. In fact, in the far north it became a detriment, as darker-pigmented humans had trouble synthesizing enough vitamin D from the sun. In that environment, natural selection favored lighter skin tones with less melanin content, and humans evolved paler skin.

The notion of “race” is nonsense, biologically. Humans developed adaptations for their unique environments, but genetically, we are all essentially the same. Melanoma is mother nature’s reminder that “white supremacy” is absolute bullshit. If being white is such a supreme state of being, then explain all those tanning booths where white people are trying to make themselves brown.

So white people are trying to make themselves darker and black people are trying to make themselves lighter? Here’s a thought, how about we just accept each other as we are born and stop stigmatizing skin tone? Shaming someone for too little or too much melanin makes as much sense as shaming them for their shoe size.

Here’s my suggestion. Black people: please stop stigmatizing each other based on melanin content. The most coal-black Dinka is just as beautiful as the fairest-skinned Kamba. Indian people: the darkest Tamil is just as beautiful as the fairest Assamese. White people: stop shaming each other for being pale. Who cares if your legs gleam like a reflective safety vest when you don your shorts for the first time in the summer? Be proud of who you are and stop trying to change yourself in a tanning booth. The most translucent Irish person is just as beautiful as the most olive-toned Greek.

Instead of everyone trying to alter their tone to some universally desirable shade of brown, can’t we all just agree that humans are like Baskin Robbins? We come in 31 flavors: from vanilla to dark chocolate, and every shade in between, and every single one of them is delicious in its own right.

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