UT professor’s research dispels archaic notions of skin color

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Photo Credit: Mel Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

Americans relish their individualism, but from college applications to research surveys, they often find themselves having to fit neatly into one of only a few racial categories.  

At UT, the options are White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American or “Foreign,” but history of science professor Alberto Martinez says groups such as these erroneously place people into narrow groups.

Through his research, Martinez argues that the main problem in our classifications of race is that they’re based around an unreliable factor: skin color. 

In surveys from 2014–2017, Martinez offered 350 UT students a range of 33 skin tones, from light to dark, and asked them to choose which ones constituted “white” and “black.”

The results were all over the map. Martinez said this stemmed from students’ inability to find a consistent definition of either category. For example, two black students chose vastly different definitions of black skin: one student said six of the presented colors counted, whereas the other said 22.

“What this survey is showing is we disagree far more about what these concepts actually mean than what we imagine,” Martinez said. “You might be at a public place where you have a concept of how many minorities are there, and how many white people are there — (but) someone sitting right next to you has a totally different concept and totally different count.”

Martinez said he and many of his students were initially puzzled by the survey’s results.

“The reason why this never comes out is because we never ask each other,” Martinez said. “We assume whatever (these categories mean) to us is some sort of empirical reality, and that’s what everyone is seeing.”

Unlike other participants, Yvan Ntwali was not surprised by the survey’s results. The history and philosophy senior from East Africa said, unlike his dark complexioned peers, he chooses not to describe himself as black, but Rwandan instead. 

“I feel like there’s a social script that Americans fall under,” Ntwali said.

Martinez said the typical racial categories people see are not rooted in science, but traced back to five color categories designed by 18th century German scientist Johann Blumenbach. The archaic categories were white, black, yellow, brown and red.

“(Blumenbach) didn’t even know what evolution was back then,” Martinez said. “The problem is we’re using non-scientific categories to differentiate people, and that’s alarming.” 

Last week, the New York Times covered a recent study published in the journal Science, which conducted the first wide-scale study on the genetics of African skin color. The results demonstrated that “old color lines” were essentially meaningless. Geneticists discovered shades of light and dark skin were already present in human ancestors before we evolved, and genetic variants in skin tone had already been widely distributed. One example was the gene that lightens skin for Europeans is also present in hunters and gatherers in Botswana, a country in Southern Africa. 

Martinez said although science dispels skin color as a lens for race, people will not let go of this construct. A solution, he argues, is institutions should offer more options when they request people to identify their race.

“We can learn to think about race as a spectrum rather than this quantum of color,” Martinez said. “I think it’s more empowering to think of ourselves in terms of spectrum of diversity, where the colors are interconnected than different.”