Race is not just skin color

“The southern Indians resemble the Ethiopians a good deal, and, are black of countenance, and their hair black also, only they are not as snub-nosed or so woolly-haired as the Ethiopians; but the northern Indians are most like the Egyptians in appearance.”

– Arrian

I might almost say that the same animals are to be found in India as in Aethiopia and Egypt, and that the Indian rivers have all the other river animals except the hippopotamus, although Onesicritus says that the hippopotamus is also to be found in India. As for the people of India, those in the south are like the Aethiopians in colour, although they are like the rest in respect to countenance and hair (for on account of the humidity of the air their hair does not curl), whereas those in the north are like the Egyptians.


The plot above is from Genetic Evidence for the Convergent Evolution of Light Skin in Europeans and East Asians. It’s a 2007 paper. For those of you not versed in genetics, 10 years is like the difference between the First Age and Third Age on Middle Earth. For those of you not versed in Tolkien, 10 years is like the difference between Gupta India and Maratha India? I think?

Basically, the authors looked around the regions of the genome of loci known to be implicated in pigmentation variation in 2007, which mostly started from differences between Europeans and Africans. In the plot above you see pairwise genetic distances visualized in a neighbor-joining tree. The populations are:

SA = Asians, IM = Island Melanesians, WA = West Africans, EU = Europeans, EA = East Asians, and NA = Native Americans

What you see is that pigmentation loci are not phylogenetically very informative. Because of ascertainment bias in discovery Europeans are an out-group on many of the genes. But overall you see that the trees generated by a relationship on pigmentation genes do not conform to what we’d expect, where Africans are an outgroup to non-Africans. This is not surprising, as any given locus is not too phylogenetically informative. Additionally, pigmentation is a trait where selection has likely changed allele frequencies a lot, so it’s not a very good trait to look at to determine evolutionary relationships.

A white actress?

I bring this up because The New York Times and other publications are reporting on a new paper in Science, Loci associated with skin pigmentation identified in African populations, with headlines like Genes for Skin Color Rebut Dated Notions of Race, Researchers Say.

The Science paper is very interesting because it helps to make up for the long-term ascertainment bias in the literature, whereby European differences from other groups helped to discover pigmentation loci of interest. The big topline result is that there’s a lot of extant variation within Africans, and much of it is very old, pre-dating modern humans by hundreds of thousands of years, implying long-term balancing selection to maintain polymorphism.

Here’s a quote from The New York Times piece:

For centuries, skin color has held powerful social meaning — a defining characteristic of race, and a starting point for racism.

“If you ask somebody on the street, ‘What are the main differences between races?,’ they’re going to say skin color,” said Sarah A. Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania.

The widespread distribution of these genes and their persistence over millenniums show that the old color lines are essentially meaningless, the scientists said. The research “dispels a biological concept of race,” Dr. Tishkoff said.

I can go along with all the sentences more or less except the last. Skin is the largest organ we have, and it’s pretty salient. West Asian Muslims regularly referred to Indians as “black” (early Islamic Arabs referred to the people of Sindh as “black crows”). They defined themselves as white (though contrasted their own olive complexion with ruddy Europeans). The Chinese referred to themselves as white, and Southeast Asians, such as the inhabitants of the ancient Cambodian kingdom of Funan, as black. Among South Asians, skin color is also very salient. During the period when Pakistan included a western and eastern half the West Pakistanis were known to refer to the Bengalis as blacks, while East Pakistanis who went to study in the West, like my father, were surprised that not all Pakistanis were white like Ayub Khan.

Sharon Muthu, Indian American actress

But racial perception and categorization are not identical with skin color. The ancients knew this intuitively, as the quotes from Arrian and Strabo above suggest. They were aware that South Asians were dark-skinned, but those in the north were lighter than those in the south, and that those in the south resembled Africans in the range of their complexion. But, they also knew that it was not difficult to distinguish a South Asian from an African in most cases, because South Asians have different hair forms and to some extent facial features, from Africans.

I know this myself personally. Living in almost white areas of the United States for most of my childhood I encountered some racism. My skin tone is within the range of African Americans. But when it came to racial slurs I was usually called “sand nigger”, or more sometimes “camel jockey.” Please note that the modifier sand. Even racists understood to distinguish people of similar hues who were clearly physically distinctive.

Conversely, African Americans did not usually recognize me as African American. Living in the Pacific Northwest there aren’t many non-whites. It’s also very rainy. Sometimes when I was wearing my Columbia jacket with hood black men walking from the other direction on the sidewalk would start to nod at me, assuming I was black. But mid-way through the nod as they approached me they recognized that despite my brown color I was not African American and would stop the motion and switch to a manner of distanced politeness as opposed to informal warmth.*

Finally, I also had East Asian friends who were very light-skinned. As light-skinned as any white person of Southern European heritage. That did not prevent racists from calling them “chinks” or (more rarely) “gooks.” These racists were seeing beyond the skin color.

If ancient authors from 2,000 years ago understood that race is more than skin color, and if genuine bigots understand race is more than skin color, I fail to understand why so often the public discourse in the United States acts as if race is just skin color. We know it’s not so.

The reason I’m posting this on Brown Pundits is that the focus on skin color made sense to me growing up in the United States, but as someone of South Asian ancestry I also knew it was not sufficient as a classifier. I knew when I was probably around five. Many South Asians see a huge range in skin color within their immediate families. That is, empirically the fact that there were large effect QTLs segregating within South Asians is obvious to any South Asian who grew up around South Asians.**

My mother is of light brown complexion. My father is of dark brown complexion. My mother’s complexion is fair enough that she is usually assumed to be Latina if she doesn’t speak (her accent is clearly South Asian), and in cases has been misjudged to be Southern European. My father, like his mother, is in contrast on the darker side. Their Bengali friends would joke that they were an interracial relationship.

My father’s father was very light skinned, and his mother was very dark skinned. Some of his siblings were dark, some of them were light, and some of them were between. One of my father’s brothers is basically a doppelganger of my father, except he is lighter skinned.

And yet there was never a question that both my parents were ethnically Bengali. They were both people with deep roots in Comilla in eastern Bengal. Now that I have their genotypes I can tell you that my parents are genetically clearly from the same region of Bengal; they cluster together even compared to other Bangladeshis. In fact, my father is more Indo-Aryan (every so slightly) shifted than my mother. I suspect it is through his mother, whose father was born into a family of recently converted Brahmins. It is clear that skin color is not predicting phylogeny in this case, and I am sure many South Asians intuitively grasp this because of the variation in complexion they see across their families, who are usually from the same sub-ethnic group in any case.***

A multiracial United States is going to be more complex world than the situation before 1965, when America’s racial consciousness was partitioned between black and white (notwithstanding Native Americans, Hispanos and other Latinos in the Southwest, and a residual of Asian Americans). But sometimes I feel the intellectual and cultural elite of this nation is stuck in the paradigm of 1964.

* I have a friend from Kerala in South India who has talked about being mistaken for being Ethiopian.

** I am the only South Asian my daughter has grown up around, and her complexion is far closer to her mother’s than my own. She did have a difficult time distinguishing me from black males in her early years because to her my dark-skin is very salient. When her mother asked her to give reasons why African American males might look different from her father, she immediately clued in on the hair and facial features.

*** Black Americans and Middle Easterners, and a whole host of other groups where pigmentation loci segregation in appreciable frequencies, can all see that differences in skin color do not necessarily denote differences in race, since there is so much intra-familial variation.


What does it mean to be “Brown?”

I have never liked the word Brown (too much of a New World term) but I much prefer Desi.

I don’t actually know what desi means (I think it’s rustic & rural combined) because its haziness is what makes it so compelling. It’s a shorthand for the children of Mother India but doesn’t extend to South East Asia, the term attenuates somewhat in Sri Lanka (who have their own cultural peculiarities) and Nepal (because of their physical resemblance to the East).

Desiness fades off somewhere in KPK/Afghanistan; exactly where is a matter of choice because the historical boundary with Greater Iran begins somewhere in the Hindu Kush. The Indo-Gangetic plan is the beating heart of Desiness; the three rivers constitute the lifeblood of desiness.

Desiness connotes shared food, a Hindustani vernacular, Bollywood, an Urdu-Mughal High culture set off against Sanskrit religion, a local & earthy UP-Punjabi culture, PIR & Guru worship, a feeling of physical & geographic unity that extends to South Asia. It’s also a sentiment and a state of being rather than a fixed characteristic. Some desis are not so desi and sometimes you can turn up and turn down the Desiness, not so with Brown (unless you use some nasty bleach products).

Of course in the migration to the New World the stark complexities of what it means to be desi sort of strips away into “Brown.” For instance do Brown people like Urdu dramas & Hindi films? Desis usually like one or the other (and the smarts ones both 🙂

When we call ourselves Brown Pundits is there really much of a common ground in this matter? Is there anything that really unites Brown people beyond the colour of their skin; there are brown Cambodians and Turks.

Desiness of course is earthiness fused with a sumptuousness and lavishness that is almost unparalleled (look at a desi wedding as an example). Persia and her strong aesthetic influence have historically percolated through the Sub-continent via the medium of Muslim/Mughal High Culture (thanks to the Brits who ensured the two became synonymous). The interplay between the Sanskritic pushback and the Persian advance has contributed to so much of our cultural heritage (try as they might Urdu is not dead yet; in exile from its UP homeland to find refuge & succour in the Punjab and a bastardised existence as lyrics in Bollywood films).

But at the end of it all Desiness somehow captures the magic & mystery of India; a culture that has persevered despite all the odds. A millennia of foreign Pardeshi rule but India has somehow managed to preserve her traditions, her religion and her culture; no mean feat.

Even Persia was reborn of an Arab rape in a way that India was not. There are several orders of magnitude more continuity between the Rig Veda and modern day India than there is with the Avesta & Iran-zamin (Zoroastrianism is memory fused with myth; Hinduism is a living reality ready to tame Islam at a moment’s notice, in fact Hinduism derives her strength by not being Islam).

Brown doesn’t really do justice to what is a highly complex and evolving civilisational space. Even if India & Pakistan make an ass of themselves on the world stage battling one another (and Pakistan always threatening defection to be a sweeper in th Minarets of the Middle East) it doesn’t mean it’s not a fascinating Sub-continent. When I compare India, Pakistan & Iran; India has retained that hue & joy of paganism that the stark monotheists have long abandoned (Islam has had such a problematic relationship with music for instance).

Of course Desipundits doesn’t have as good a ring to it as Brownpundits so I guess we’ll have to suffice with Brown.


Why is white such a problematic term

The more I think about it the more I realise Ta-Nehsi Coates is into something. White is probably as loaded as the n-word. My reasoning below:

Before 1492 Europe had some but limited contact with other civilisations (Marco Polo, Greco-Roman antiquity, trade) therefore there wasn’t a sense of definition. Since the Old Word, for the most part, is racially continuous the ethnic distinctions are for the most part slight. Most Greeks are lighter-skinned than most Turks but it’s a stretch to call the former white and the latter not. Everyone blends into one another, not excacy but even so just enough to make for hazy lines.

After 1492 when Europeans encounter another civilisations entities and meets/imports them into the New World; new racial terms are required. Turk & Christian aren’t enough because slaves could be either faith.

So the term white arose in a milieu of European domination (Europe may have initially sought out the world to trade but eventually like all cultures it turned to domination).

In this sense white turns out to be ethnic dominator labels like Turk or Arab (most Muslims in the Indian East trace their ancestry, whether real or fictitious, to either of these groups never to Persians as an example). However since one drop rule didn’t really exist anywhere else (Arabs have huge dollops of SSA ancestry making them descendants of both slaves & slave-holders) it makes white a very loaded term and a holdover of half a millennia of domination.

The ancient Greeks & Romans blended into their populations; do we have any unadulterated relics of their colonies to the existing day? Such stark racial terms (black, white etc) ellide the common truth that Humanity is One and that humans have always commingled & co-existed with one another, one-drop rule is the exception as opposed to the rule.

Again I could be wrong but most of human history is myth and if we have the right myths, maybe we could evolve in a better direction?