image of melanin

Melanin is triggered by the enzyme tyrosinase, which creates the shade of skin, eyes, and hair.

My mother’s grandmother traveled from Ireland to the United States to start a new life. My grandmother was born in Chicago with pale skin that freckled easily. Her mother hated the freckles, and told my grandmother that they were ugly. She applied a milk mixture on my grandmother’s face and arms to cover them up. My parents and four siblings have hair and eyes of differing shades of brown. Their skin tans easily in the summer sun. I was born with the same pale complexion as my grandmother. I have blonde hair and blue eyes, and my skin burns easily. I don’t know why I am the fair one. But fair I am. I am the white girl whose mom had to reapply sunscreen to her hair part so her scalp wouldn’t burn. Whose missed patch of skin would blister after an hour at the pool. I am the white girl who gets asked if she is feeling okay when she doesn’t wear make-up. Who has to wear sunglasses and SPF lip balm on cloudy and sunny days alike. I fear the sun.

Until 100,000 years ago, the ancestors of all people were dark- skinned Africans.

In a Kenyan slum, a girl of six or seven stands outside a small church. She sees a woman approaching with the skin the color of an angel. She is amazed. She cannot decide if she should get closer or farther away. The transparent woman smiles and waves. The girl walks alongside the woman, a barbed wire fence separating them. The girl giggles and covers her mouth with her hands. She nears the end of the fence and runs to meet her sister, who stands at the entrance to the church. Both girls are wearing white dresses with accents of lace on the collar. The younger hides behind the older, peeking at the woman. She has never seen anything like her before. The older of the sisters, maybe nine, approaches the woman slowly. The whites of her eyes match her shining teeth. She leans toward the barbed wire fence and whispers to the woman slowly and serenely, “You are so beautiful.” To the pale woman, the reverence in the girl’s voice is striking. The girl recedes toward the church, never losing eye contact with the woman.

Fair skin tones are correlated with higher caste status in the Hindu social order.

white angel
In a rural Uruguayan town there is a Catholic Church in the center plaza. A few dozen families congregate there for the Christmas Vigil. The church is dark, dusty and humid. People mumble prayers in unison at the tiles on the floor. Late into the Mass, the vested priest serves communion. The congregants file up the center aisle toward the priest. They receive the body and blood of Christ and then turn to approach a ceramic Nativity scene. In the middle of the manger, sitting in a wooden box of real straw is a statue of baby Jesus. He has a full head of blonde hair. His blue eyes match his swaddling clothes. Jesus’ tiny baby toes peek out the bottom of the blanket. The cattle farmers and rice mill workers, the mothers and teachers, the kids obediently bend and kiss the white feet of Jesus on the way back to their pew.

In Europe before the Industrial Revolution, pale skin became associated with wealth and status because the rich did not have to work outdoors.

A woman in her early thirties admires a famous gorge in Pokhara, Nepal. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices a group of Indian men pointing their cell phone camera lenses at her. They are trying to be discreet, but fail miserably. When she catches the eye of one of the men, he approaches her and introduces himself, bowing. He asks if she will pose with them for a picture. Each of the three men take turns standing next to her while the other two take multiple shots. They give her a small bow and thank her for her willingness to pose. “Now, I will remember that my path crossed with yours forever,” the oldest of the men says. He reaches into his wallet and pulls out a business card. “When you come to India, find me. You are always free to stay with our family.”

The Masai believe light skin comes from being cursed by evil spirits through witchcraft. Children born with light skin are often abandoned.

Santos is the head of a religious school in San Salvador. After completing high school, he became a teacher. He worked his way up to be a trusted administrator. When he became the head of the school, he was nervous about writing grants and giving reports to foundations who came in as international partners. Now, the school is growing and expanding because of its healthy budget. The school is supported by foundations in France, Holland and the United States. He says, “I used to be intimidated by white people. I thought God loved them more. They are the color of goodness, and we are the color of dirt, the color of evil. Then some gringos came to work here, and I realized that they are just people like me. Now, because I am friends with these white people, everybody assumes that I have money, too.”

In 2008 skin whitening product sales grew to $43 million worldwide.