Reflections on skin color and talking to kids.

One evening when my daughter Nicole was four years old, we were sitting at the dinner table and she asked me a very important question, “hey Dad, why is Michael’s skin brown?” I realized at once this was a very critical teachable moment. I knew that my answer would set a tone as to how my wife and I wanted Nicole to view the world and the people she would meet along her journey. I also recognized that she was only four years old, so I didn’t think deep science was called for. Obviously, her question was about Michael, the son of Lenny, a dear friend of mine from high school who just happens to be African American. At the time that my daughter asked her question, we lived perhaps two blocks from Lenny and his family, and we spent a lot of time together with our kids.

As I pondered an answer to Nicole’s question, which I so desperately wanted to get right, I thought of how almost from birth she seemed to be drawn to color, art, painting and design. So, in response to Nicole’s question, I asked her, “when you paint, do you use one color or lots of different colors?” She responded by saying, “I use lots of different colors because it is prettier that way”. I then said, “the world is prettier because of different colored flowers and birds and people and everything”. She was satisfied with my answer and continued eating. Later that night, after Nicole had gone to bed, my wife and I felt good about my answer to her question, and about the environment we were providing for our children.

It’s now 29 years later, and the question of why Michael is brown, Nicole is white, and on and on, has unfortunately become more critical today given the current state of affairs in American society. Some people want to disregard skin color as irrelevant and unimportant to our understanding of how we got to where we are today. To those people I say imagine someone who is having some difficulty in their life and they decide to try psychotherapy. They seek out a therapist and at the first session the practitioner states, “let’s get started but we are not going to talk about or explore your childhood”. If we ain’t going to talk about the past, how can we understand the present.

Others confront the issue of skin color by claiming to be color blind. While this sounds noble and progressive, it actually ignores the experiences of those who do not have the luxury to make that statement.

Finally, there are those who use skin color as a litmus test by which they judge, hate, marginalize and condemn. It can be an ugly tapestry at this moment, not the beautiful world of color that I described to Nicole.

Recently, I thought it was time to re-visit Nicole’s question from a more scientific and objective lens. My research revealed some interesting facts about the origins of the differences in human skin color. Up until approximately 50,000 years ago, all homo sapiens (that’s us) remained in the cradle of our birthplace, equatorial Africa. The rays from the Sun are very strong along Earth’s equator, so homo sapiens initially evolved with a high degree of melanin in their skin as a protective measure. That meant that we started out as a dark-skinned species.

Humanity began to spread out from Africa. Over many millennia we spread further north and south of the equator. The further we ventured from the equator, the more our skin adapted by losing melanin so that we could absorb sufficient amounts of Vitamin D. Darker skin makes it more difficult to absorb sufficient amounts of the Sun’s rays in order to manufacture Vitamin D.

That’s it. The differences in human skin color merely reflect evolutionary adaptations over time to the relative strength of the Sun’s rays at the various latitudes where people settled. We all started dark-skinned from the same place, and Darwinian change occurred and the fittest survived.

Sadly, over time various powers that be wrongfully conflated skin color with the unfounded construct of race, and the accompanying prejudice(s) concerning relative intelligence, value, rights, entitlement, power, propensities for violence, etc. Today, society bears the scars and ongoing impact of that terrible turn of events which was based upon nothing more than adaptive changes in skin color.

When considering Nicole’s question anew, I like to think that both answers are correct. Yes, there is the scientific explanation concerning the genesis of the differences in skin color as mere adaptations to environmental factors. However, and equally important, there is also a world that is simply made more beautiful by variations in color of every kind. I let both answers inform the lens through which I meet new people along my journey, and as I consider their stories, their perspectives and their experiences. One World/One Love. Peace.

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