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Skin color and Race

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Social Studies +6 Age Levels Middle School (13 to 15 years old), High School (16 to 18 years old)

What is the connection between skin color and race? Historically, science and genetics have been used to support racist world views, yet we know there is no scientific evidence to determine race. This collection uses the painting “Black & White” by Glenn Ligon and Byron Kim and the Project Zero thinking routine “See, Think, Wonder” that has been adapted, making it “See, Wonder, Connect”. Students should not be told of the background of the painting ahead of time, but this can be revealed once they have completed the thinking routine 

Additionally, the collection includes a TedTalk by Angélica Dass called “The Beauty of Human Skin in Every Color”, which students will watch next. “We still live in a world where the color of our skin not only gives a first impression, but a lasting one,” says artist Angélica Dass. She is from Brazil, and her family is “full of colors.” She describes her father’s skin as “deep chocolate.” He was adopted by her grandmother, whose skin is “porcelain,” and her grandfather, whose skin is “somewhere between vanilla and strawberry.” Her mom is “cinnamon.” Her sisters are more “toasted peanut.” (https://blog.ted.com/angelica-dass-reveals-her-art-at-ted2016/). Students should watch the talk and answer a few questions. While these can be done in small groups or as a class, due to the nature of the questions it may be best to allow students time to reflect individually and perhaps share out using a quiet thinking routine called ‘Chalk Talk’. This routine allows students to move around the room, recording responses on large poster paper or a board without needing to use their name. Students can then rotate through, reading the responses of others. If the teacher wants, comments or questions could be added in a non-verbal discussion through interacting on poster paper.

An optional set of extension discussion questions has been provided, but these are suitable for older students. Also, as an additional resource, a link to Byron Kim’s “Synecdoche” at the National Gallery of Art and the Washington Post article about the piece has been included. Students could engage with this work as an extension or look at both pieces side by side in a comparison before any final class reflection. 

Then students will finish by using the Project Zero thinking routine “The Three Y’s” as a reflection. 

Connection with genetics:

From an evolutionary perspective, skin color evolved as a mechanism to protect against UV radiation. UV radiation stimulates skin cells to produce melanin, a pigment that can be found in skin, hair and eyes. People living closer to the equator experience a greater exposure to UV A and UV B radiation and therefore need more protection from the sun – hence, more melanin and darker pigmentation. People living in areas farther away from the equator experience less exposure and need far less melanin to protect, so have lighter skin tones.  Skin color is an example of a polygenic trait, a characteristic that is controlled by more than one gene, which allows for continuous variation depending on what collection of genes are inherited from parents. If this collection is used within a genetics unit where students learn about these kinds of genes, then students may already have some previous knowledge about the subject. If more information about the science of skin color is needed, I have included a TedTalk by Nina Jablonski entitled “Skin Color is an Illusion” within the collection. Also, more information about the science of skin color can be found in the Discover Magazine article provided. 

Advances in genetics have proven that we are all very closely related and differ in our genes by only a very small percent (0.1% on average). With this in mind, we must consider why daily rhetoric continues to perpetuate racist ideas. This collection can be used in several classroom settings, including: Biology (genetics or human evolution unit), Human Anatomy, History (when studying slavery, apartheid or colonialism in general), or Theory of Knowledge (when exploring the Natural Sciences Area of Knowledge, language as a way of knowing, or making knowledge claims about evidence).