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Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2013
Have you ever tried to puzzle out for yourself how the human species got so focused on skin color and its meaning? More to the point, have you ever tried to discuss this question with friends and found yourself backtracking, disavowing prejudiced views, or just shutting down when nerves were struck and epithets started to fly? How much would you have given for a carefully researched and lucid exposition of how racial stereotypes developed historically over the centuries? Nina Jablonski's excellent new book Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color gives us the tools we need to think clearly about race.

As a scientist (she is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State), Jablonski understands race to be purely a social construct, and she devotes the first half of her book to explaining the biological origins of skin color and the effects on human health of the diaspora from Africa. Much of this information is also ably conveyed in Jablonski's earlier book, Skin: A Natural History.

The second half of Living Color tackles the harder issues of our responses to skin color. Humans are "highly visual" and mostly learn through imitation, Jablonski asserts. "We are hard-wired to be receptive to visual differences and responsive to the reactions of authority figures" and thus easily influenced to adopt the prejudices of our families and larger cultures (94). She incorporates fascinating studies to support her argument, including an experiment conducted by elementary school teacher Jane Elliott in 1968 (p. 95). Having established our tendency to attribute significance to skin color, Jablonski reminds us that we are not "neurologically predestined to be biased . . . . [because] Our attitudes are constantly subject to change through experience and, importantly, conscious choice" (99). However, "Most people are not aware of the influence of stereotype on their own thought processes, and this lack of awareness . . . has had profound effect on human history" (102).

The fascinating chapters that follow trace the development of the concept of human races and its often horrific influence on human behavior. Jablonski succinctly examines the histories of India, Egypt, the Mediterranean, Brazil, and the Islamic world to show how all peoples begin with the unexamined assumption that their own culture is both the norm and the ideal. She traces the process by which this assumption, complicated by many factors, led to race being established as "an institutional fact" that made slavery possible [141]. I was surprised to learn that Immanuel Kant was "one of the most influential racists of all time," whose reputation as a philosopher gave his writings about the superiority of lighter-colored races inordinate influence (134). Sidebars document some of the most egregious justifications of slavery but also contemporary refutations by abolitionists. Throughout, Jablonski buttresses her historical discussion with citations from modern studies of the effects of racial attitudes.

The historical chapters are followed by investigations into what color means in societies today. Tanning and skin lightening are considered in essays illustrated with photographs and depictions of advertising campaigns. In fact, the whole book benefits from well-chosen illustrations. Also commendable are the extensive end notes and bibliography.

This excellent book should be widely read and influential. Jablonski puts her faith in human intelligence and our ability to incorporate new information and perspectives. Yet she is under no illusion about the struggle reason may have with entrenched and unexamined beliefs. "The diminishing of a human being on the basis of skin color lays bare the worst aspects of our visual orientation, suggestibility, imitativeness, and status consciousness"(197). Fortunately for us, Jablonski has determined that, at least in the scientific community, "We live in an Enlightenment of color," (2) to which she contributes this clear-headed and profoundly encouraging book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2014
Absolutely excellent and flawless. Nina Jablonski's "Living Color" should forever put to rest any arrogance, ignorance or self-serving arguments that breathe air into racism, racists of all colors, or any subtle justifications supporting or tolerating it. This should be a standard text in every college and junior-senior year of high school that wants to genuinely educate and enlighten its students about humanity. Dr. Jablonski has authored an indisputable book on the obvious irrelevance of race and so-called racial differences, with great photos, illustrations and clear details. This book greatly enhances her "Skin Deep" lectures and documentaries on YouTube. Nevertheless, until much of human nature and racially socialized people discards this human weakness, we'll have to occasionally suffer from every knuckle-dragging knucklehead that believes they have an ounce of superiority or entitlement over other humans. Even in this 21st century, we're still on a disastrous race-based journey no matter how we disguise it through rhetoric, politics or politricks.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2012
With so many different hues of humans abound. We have wondered in the past and now: How can there be so many shades? Where does skin coloring come from? Is it of great importance? Does skin color affect us today?

Nina G. Jablonksi explores this in her new book, "Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color". As a distinguished professor of Anthropology and named one of the first Alphonse Fletcher St.Fellows for her efforts to improve the understanding of color, Jablonski's words and her study on this topic is what drew me first.

First, the book is broken down into two parts: Biology and Society. The biological aspect is explained in laymen can understand and answers the questions of where shades of color come from and where does skin come from specifically. According to Jablonksi, "Although hemoglobin contributes to skin color, the most important substance...is melanin"(Jablonksi, 2012, p. 10: Living Color).

The melanin and eumelanin, found below the skin reacts to exposure in the sun. So those born near the equator will be dark or at least tan and able to tan very well. The author goes very deep into pigmentation, faulty melanin radicals (albinism), and the reason why vitamin D deficiency occurs in those with paler skin- this was due to migration shifts and hunting for game leading humans into Eurasian colonies. In other words, we all began in Africa and then there was a spread of colonies and humans lightened or darkened according to biology and region.

Moving from biology to society, the book gets interesting. In fact, if you are African American, African, or of another race with dark pigmentation, the information that flows can be disheartening and it makes you wonder how could intelligent species even think like that? For example, Immanuel Kant, a well known philosopher "was convinced that skin color denoted qualities of personality and morality"(134). He published books that Europeans read and took as law. He believed that if you are tanned or dark, something is wrong with you- as in your psychology, well being, morals, health, etc.

Another writer/philosopher, Voltaire believed in polygenism- he postulated people came from Adam and Eve generally but where did Africans come from? I can say that Voltaire was just plain stupid or ignorant- either way, once again, many lighter skinned people took what he said as law as well.

Other travel journals were written by explorers who never "explored" Africa at all, but came up with hilarious, frightening stories about "ape people" with large eyes and limbs and guess what? The Europeans bought that garbage as well.

Jablonksi further explores how skin coloring affected the slave trade, modern tanning, and skin lightening problems we have today. It is much to go through and explain here, but after reading her book I am further convinced that there is only one way to cure racism-

Love yourself and get to know people outside of the books.

I rate this book 4.5 stars.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2013
Noted anthropologist Nina Jablonski has taken on the sensitive topic of skin color, the first visual identifying trait gleaned by the beholder of others. With an engaging writing style, the reader is exposed to the biological significance of skin color due to the amount of and kinds of melanin activated by ultraviolet radiation. Thus pigments and color resulted from geographic location and solar exposure. With migration from the African plains, and adaptation to different pressures, mutations enabled the skin color of populations to more fittingly evolve to suit the environment. The second part of the book deals with society’s view of color, with dark being dirty and immoral and light associated with purity and goodness. About the 1500’s, the categorization of color into racial stereotypes commenced with biblical referrals upholding the differences. Esteemed philosophers such as Kant and Voltaire were notable adherents to the ideas of color affecting intellect, morality, and championed the practice of slavery as justifiable. The fascinating topic of how minds were culturally corrupted by racial categorization of skin color over the course of time makes mesmerizing reading. One has to remember that skin pigment is the individual’s armor against ultraviolet radiation, and is our guardian in providing vitamin D for healthy bones. The color of our skin just defines the regions occupied by our ancestors prior to modern travel conveniences.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 4, 2013
It is a very rare phenomenon for a major scholar like Nina Jablonski to write both for an academic audience (see her 2006 book, Skin: A Natural History) and a general audience a few years later. The challenges are enormous: how to summarize vast amounts of research that move across many disciples (evolutionary biology, human anatomy and physiology, paleontology, anthropology, nutrition, psychology, and culture -- to name just a few) without trivializing the insights of specialists OR numbing the mind of non-specialist readers. Anyone who wants to understand why skin color has acquired the meanings we give it should read both books, but I suspect that most readers will find the more recent book entirely sufficient.

But "Living Color" is far,far more than sufficient: it is provocative without being polemical. Jablonski marshalls an astonishing academic literature that sheds light on the historical development of skin color -- why and how it developed -- and then illuminates the various ways that culture have attributed meaning to visual difference. So deeply was the instinct not just to "see" but to "evaluate" that the travel literature from early European explorers confirmed prejudices that they had brought to their voyages. "Color" thus became an integral feature of colonization. Being "color blind" was never an option.

But everyone already knows this, right? What was new for me was how "color" was as a signifier within the same color group -- not just between groups. I didn't know about the differences between genders either. The adjectives that we have learned to name races are just that -- and very imprecise at that. (I am old enough to remember a Crayola named "flesh.") Who knew that Vitamin D plays such an important role in human development and health? I didn't. Where would I learn about the impact of "tanning salons" for cultures that value a particular hue or "skin whitening" for cultures that seek to avoid it?

The book is lavishly illustrated and carefully indexed -- a rarity in books written for a general audience. It even has a first-rate bibliography. I cannot imagine a more helpful or humane introduction. The author is erudite but wears her learning lightly. The use of side boxes is a bonus for clarifying complex issues, and there is not a single illustration that I would omit. I do wish, however, that the publisher had reprinted all of the plates found in the 2006 volume in this book -- they are relevant here as well.

Serious readers? Read both books, but if you have time for only one, I strongly recommend "Living Color."
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Given that skin color is so widely used in stereotyping, it is amazing that there has never been a clear, straightforward, and accurate treatment of the subject until now. Jablonski's presentation is very accessible and occasionally amusing, but it is also authoritative, comprehensive, and wise. I thought I knew a good deal about skin color before I read this book; now I know my knowledge was (sorry) only skin-deep. Really, I wish every high school student in America would read this book and think about the implications of skin color with some FACTS in hand. This isn't light reading, but it is terribly important and I can guarantee you won't be bewildered by too much dense jargon or incomprehensible gobbledegook.

I strongly recommend this book. Skin color is such a key issue in our time and we must begin to discuss it openly, calmly, and truthfully! Living Color is the place to start.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2013
I think everybody should read this book before discussing racism with other people. It gives good explanations about how it's not only wrong but biologically nonsensical to be racist.
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5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 23, 2012
Jablonski does an excellent job in detailing why and how the concept of "race" is constructed, not discovered. A vivid exercise in postmodern deconstruction, it seems also to construct, itself, a sword of Damocles. It is this discussion that is missing from Jablonski's book.

Precarious is the pronouncement that race is not real when such also marks the very context of the pride of a people defined by this thing called race. Racial pride was the civil-rights wave that carried black Americans out of the internalized oppression hoist upon them by the dominant culture, and racial pride is threatened by the very idea that race is not real - however positive the intent in so doing.

While I understand and highly value the postmodern urge to deconstruct harmful binaries, sometimes such a process, while valid in an intellectual sense, just doesn't go down well. It is a process grounded in a value system that the dominant culture (that uses 'race' to oppress) does not adhere to. Telling a KKK member that race is not real is as absurd as telling a Jew in Auschwitz that race is not real -- it flies in the face of personal experience. Unless and until the dominant culture can accept the concept as valid, it is largely an exercise in futile, if not deadly, absurdity for the non-dominant people to accept it.

I write this from personal experience, as I have encountered a marked degree of insult by those minority populations with whom I have attempted this feat (deconstruct race). Unfortunately, it is a deconstruction with very limited influence, and it does not, alone, address the consciousness which drives the judgemental quality of racism.

If the judgementalness is removed from "race", then what is remaining is distinction. And distinction, pure distinction, does not require further deconstruction to remedy harm. It is harmless, indeed, necessary.

Steven Brody
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2013
my UC Berkeley daughter is using this book for school and she is learning a lot about everything. my daughter says that this is good book and this book came in time. fast shipping and excellent service.
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on August 6, 2014
eye opening
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