Mention the term ‘skin color’ and people usually think of race or ethnicity. Yet this way of thinking became dominant only when Europeans began moving out and colonizing the rest of the world, beginning in the 16th century. Previously, physical features were less useful as ethnic markers. We knew about and quarrelled with those groups of people who lived within close range, and they tended to look a lot like us. People farther away looked more different, but we had less to do with them. Often, we didn’t even know they existed. So we separated “us” from “them” mainly on the basis of culture—language, religion, customs, and so on.
In those earlier times, skin color was used to distinguish among individuals of the same people and between the two sexes, women being paler and men ruddier and browner. A pale color also set infants apart, particularly in those societies where everyone else was much darker-skinned.
Skin color thus had meanings related to gender, age, or simply the identity of any one individual. This was true for all cultures. For example, in pre-Islamic writings from Arabia:
Human beings are frequently described by words which we might translate as black, white, red, olive, yellow, and two shades of brown, one lighter and one darker. These terms are usually used in a personal rather than an ethnic sense and would correspond to such words as “swarthy,” “sallow,” “blonde,” or “ruddy” in our own modern usage more than to words like “black” and “white.” (Lewis, 1990, p. 22)
Similarly, the Japanese would use the terms shiroi (white) and kuroi(black) to describe their gradations of skin color (Wagatsuma, 1967). The Igbo of precolonial Nigeria used ocha (white) and ojii(black) in the same way, so that nwoko ocha (white man) merely meant an African with a yellowish or reddish complexion (Ardener, 1954).
Jews of Antiquity
This older way of viewing skin color—personal, relativistic, and gender-oriented—has been studied by David Goldenberg with respect to the Jews of the ancient world.
The Jews considered their skin to be light brown. A second-century rabbi compared it to “the boxwood tree, neither black nor white, but in between” (Goldenberg, 2003, p. 95). In papyri from Ptolemaic Egypt, Jews are almost always described as “honey-colored” (Cohen, 1999, pp. 29-30).
Nonetheless, Jewish women were preferentially referred to as “white.” This reflected the naturally lighter complexion of women, which was made lighter still by sun avoidance and various cosmetics. One rabbinic text advises, “He who wishes to whiten his daughter’s complexion, let him give her milk and young fowl,” while another recommends using olive oil as a body lotion for the same purpose. A Midrash recounts that after returning from exile in Babylon the men didn’t wish to marry the women who came with them because the sun had darkened their faces on the long journey home (Goldenberg, 2003, p. 86). This preference is implicit in a rabbinic discussion of a vow “not to marry a particular woman who is ugly, but it turns out that the woman is beautiful; or black (dark;shehorah), but it turns out that she is white (fair; levanah); or short, but she is tall. Even if she was ugly, but became beautiful; or black, and became white” (Goldenberg, 2003, pp. 85-86).
“White” was also the preferred color of infants. According to a rabbinic tradition, if a woman was suspected of infidelity and found innocent, she would go through the following changes: “if she formerly bore ugly babies, she will now bear beautiful babies; if she formerly bore dark [shehorin] children, she will now bear fair [levanim] children” (Goldenberg, 2003, p. 96).
In the above cases, the terms “white” and “black” were projected onto individuals and onto the two sexes in a relative sense that is better translated by “light” and “dark.” This relativism also held true when the same terms were projected onto ethnic groups. Hence, the Jews often called themselves “white” in relation to darker-skinned peoples, usually Egyptians or kushi (black Africans).
For example, in one parable a kushit maidservant claims she is the most beautiful of her household. Her matronah (a free woman of good family) replies: “Come the morning and we’ll see who is black [shahor] and who is white [lavan]” (Goldenberg, 2003, p. 88). Interestingly, the Jews also considered themselves “white” in comparison to Arabs (Goldenberg,2003, pp. 120-124).
There was also the reverse semantic process: the description of an individual’s skin color by a word that originally applied to an ethnic group. A lighter-skinned Jew could for instance be called a germani, and a darker-skinned Jew a kushi. There are even cases of the word kushi being used for inanimate objects, like dark wine (Goldenberg, 2003, p. 116).
Whatever the case, use of color terms in an ethnic sense tended to carry over values from the non-ethnic sense, specifically the aesthetic ones associated with the lighter skin of women and infants. We see this in a commentary on Gen 12:11 where Abraham enters Egypt and, fearing that the Egyptians will covet his wife, says: “Now I know that you are a beautiful woman.” This is explained in the commentary as meaning: “Now we are about to enter a place of ugly and dark [people]” (Goldenberg, 2003, p. 86).
The Egyptians were the Dark Other. Depreciation of their darker skin became associated with negative values, not only ugliness but also uncleanliness and servility. In rabbinic writings, Egypt is called “a house of slaves” and the Pharaoh himself is said to be a “slave.” In one text, Jacob debates whether to go to Egypt: “Shall I go to an unclean land, among slaves, the children of Ham?” (Goldenberg, 2003, pp. 160-161). This view is preserved in a homily by the third-century Christian writer Origen:
But Pharao easily reduced the Egyptian people to bondage to himself, nor is it written that he did this by force. For the Egyptians are prone to a degenerate life and quickly sink to every slavery of the vices. Look at the origin of the race and you will discover that their father Cham, who had laughed at his father’s nakedness, deserved a judgment of this kind, that his son Chanaan should be a servant to his brothers, in which case the condition of bondage would prove the wickedness of his conduct. Not without merit, therefore, does the discolored posterity imitate the ignobility of the race.
Homily on Genesis XVI
Most academics argue that dark skin became mentally associated with slavery through the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. Others, like Bernard Lewis, believe this mental association goes back to the expansion of the Muslim world into Africa in the seventh century (Lewis, 1990). Actually, it seems to go even farther back, at least to the third century and perhaps even to the establishment of Roman rule over the region (Goldenberg, 2003, pp. 155-156, 168-174). From that time onward, a pigmentocracy took shape in Egypt with Greeks, Jews, and Romans forming the dominant class. Meanwhile, a trade in slaves grew and developed between sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Once the Roman Empire had stopped growing, and stopped taking large numbers of prisoners of war, trade became the main source of domestic servants. It is perhaps significant that the kushitmaidservant appears as a recurring motif in rabbinic literature, since that period—Late Antiquity—would correspond to the time when the black slave trade was slowly but steadily growing (Goldenberg, 2003, pp. 126-128).
This trade may have undermined the status of Egyptians as the Dark Other. Initially, the kushi were often seen as an especially dark sort of Egyptian, perhaps because they were usually encountered in the Middle East as subjects of the Pharaoh (Goldenberg, 2003, pp. 17, 109, 301 n111). In Late Antiquity, they emerged more and more as a distinct category, probably because they were becoming more and more numerous as slaves, particularly in the eastern provinces of the Empire. It was during this time that their dark skin came to be explained as a curse on their forefather Kush, whose father Ham had sinned either by seeing Noah naked or by copulating in the Ark. In one text, Noah curses Ham with the words: “May your progeny be dark and ugly” (Goldenberg, 2003, p. 97). This is not a specifically Jewish tradition, being also attested in early Christian and early Islamic writings (Goldenberg, 2003, pp. 150-177).
We perceive human skin color by means of mental algorithms that originally processed non-ethnic differences in pigmentation: 1) the minor variability that exists among individuals; 2) the difference between infants (who are born with little pigmentation) and older humans; and 3) the sex difference, female skin being paler than male skin because it has less melanisation and less blood flowing through its outer layers. This is a universal sex difference, although it is most visible in humans of medium color (Frost, 2007).
Initially, these algorithms focused on the second source of variability. At some point in evolution, human skin acquired a new meaning when the adult female body began to mimic the relative lightness of infant skin, as well as other visible, audible, and tangible aspects of infants—smoother, more pliable skin, a higher-pitched voice, and a more childlike face. This mimicry arose apparently as a means to provide the adult female with the psychological effects that these traits induce in other adults, particularly males, i.e., a lower level of aggressiveness and a greater desire to provide care and nurturance (Frost, 2011).
After being a sign of age difference and then gender difference, skin color took on a third meaning within historic times—to varying degrees in Antiquity and then overwhelmingly with the expansion of the European world from the sixteenth century onward. Today, this new meaning has eclipsed the older ones, at least at the level of conscious thought.
Ardener, E.W. (1954). Some Ibo attitudes to skin pigmentation,Man, 54, 71-73.
Cohen, S.J.D. (1999). The Beginnings of Jewishness, Berkeley.
Frost, P. (2007). Comment on Human skin-color sexual dimorphism: A test of the sexual selection hypothesis, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 133, 779-781.
Frost, P. (2011). Hue and luminosity of human skin: a visual cue for gender recognition and other mental tasks, Human Ethology Bulletin, 26(2), 25-34.
Goldenberg, D.M. (2003). The Curse of Ham. Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Goldenberg, D.M. (2009). Racism, Color Symbolism, and Color Prejudice, in M. Eliav-Feldon, B. Isaac, and J. Ziegler (eds.) The Origins of Racism in the West, Cambridge.
Lewis, B. (1990). Race and Slavery in the Middle East, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Origen (2010). Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, transl. by R.E. Heine., Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press
Wagatsuma, H. (1967). The social perception of skin color in Japan,Daedalus, 96, 407-443.