Dr. Nina Jablonski explores skin color and the role it plays in self identity, racism and evolution

World-famous anthropologist on race, genetics and the genealogy of primates.

Visiting the Appalachian State University podcast studio, anthropologist and author Nina Jablonski posits that human evolution has taken off like the world’s fastest sprinter, dramatically changing the human face of the earth. In this far-ranging interview, she explores skin color and race and the roles they’ve played socially, biologically and from a health perspective over the last 200,000 years.


  • Megan Hayes: Dr. Nina Jablonski is Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. A biological anthropologist and paleo-biologist, she studies the evolution and adaptations to the environment in old world primates, including humans. For the last 25 years she has pursued questions in human evolution not directly answered by the fossil record. Foremost among these being the evolution of human skin and human skin pigmentation. In addition to her scholarly articles on skin, Dr. Jablonski has written two popular books: Skin a Natural History published in 2006 and Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color published in 2012. Dr. Jablonski received her BA in biology at Bryn Mawr College and her Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Washington. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an elected member of the American Philosophical Society, and a member of the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences of the U.S. National Research Council. A long list of her most recent accomplishments includes an honorary doctorate from the University of Stellenbosch of South Africa for her contribution to her worldwide fight against racism. Currently she is collaborating on the development of new approaches to science education in the United States, which have the dual aims of improving the understanding of evolution and human diversity and stimulating interest among students in pursuing STEM courses in careers. Dr. Nina Jablonski welcome to Appalachian and welcome to SoundAffect.

    Dr. Nina Jablonski: I’m thrilled to be here, thanks.

    MH: You’re a scholar of evolution. I was wondering if you could talk about the evolution of your scholarship?

    DNJ: What a wonderful question. My scholarship has evolved in much the same way that biological systems have evolved — with a certain amount of randomness and a certain amount of direction. The randomness came in from the fact that I’ve never had a particularly set idea about what I wanted to do, but I’ve always pursued things that were interesting to me in my heart and mind. I never got up one morning and said, “I have to be an anthropologist.” It just sort of happened. I have been a voracious reader all of my life and as a child I was fascinated by the natural world. I walked around out of doors all the time and, living in upstate New York, I collected fossils that were occurring naturally outside of my doorstep, literally. When I was a kid my father taught me about life in ancient times and that I was actually living on a sea that was 350 million years old. I didn’t know what a million years meant, but it just boggled my youthful mind. I found these fossils so beautiful and so intensely interesting that I wanted to learn more about ancient life. Then when I was about fourteen, in eighth grade, I got interested in human evolution after watching a program about Louis and Mary Leaky and Olduvai Gorge on the television. I thought, “Oh my goodness! You mean I can study human evolution? Study what humans did in the past?” To make a long story short, I have pursued that line for most of my life with great enjoyment, with some ups and downs as well as some detours, but my specific areas of interest have followed opportunities. I love paleontology, I continue to do paleontology until this day. I study the evolution of old world primates, including humans, but my inner love is the evolution of monkeys. In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time studying aspects of human evolution that aren’t easily represented or known in the fossil record. I’ve become fascinated by these, because some of these “things,” whether they be skin or behaviors, they are extremely important to our understanding of human evolution. I try to use as many tools possible — from comparative biology, meteorology, paleontology, and biochemistry, all sorts of different fields — to try to understand what we looked like in the past, how we acted in the past, and how we interacted with our environments in the past. It’s been a great ride.

    MH: Can talk about what you have learned about how the past impacts today, and how we interact societally today.

    DNJ: I think one of the fascinating things about looking at humans in an evolutionary context is that you realize that we have undergone extremely rapid changes in the last few thousand years as a result of accelerated cultural evolution. Our biological evolution was quite rapid. Our species, homosapiens, emerged about 200,000 years ago and we became sedentary agriculturally based people for the most part around eight to ten thousand years ago. Since then we have taken off like Usain Bolt [a Jamaican sprinter, regarded as the fastest person ever timed] on a trajectory of increasing cultural and technological change. This has lead to tremendous cultural advances, our ability to communicate with one another instantaneously, abilities to convey our thoughts and feelings in many forms scientifically and artistically. The pace and rate of human evolution has never been greater, but what this also means is that we have engaged in a lot of things for which we had no prediction. We have done a lot of stuff without thinking about any of the consequences. In my own work of skin and skin pigmentation, I think a lot about what has happened as the result of many of the recent migrations and changes in lifestyle that humans have undertaken in the last few hundred years. We have been able to move so much faster and so much farther, and where boundaries between countries have been porous enough to allow movements. Now we have people from all over the place living all over the place. This literally has changed the human face of the Earth and we have to think about this from social, biological, and health perspectives. I see it as my job to try to put modern humans in all of their exuberant innovativeness into this evolutionary context.

    MH: Your bio references an initiative your lead-in called the “Effects of Race Program.” Can you talk about the process and also the goals for that project?

    DNJ: This is a big project being undertaken in South Africa, which along with the United States is one of the countries that has been most riven in the last several hundred years by issues related to race and stark prejudice related to race. In South Africa like in the United States there was enforced segregation based on color, mostly, as well as ancestry. This now has been legally relaxed in both countries but still continues to be a major obstacle to human education and economic advancement. In the “Effects of Race Project” at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study we have brought together scientists, social scientists, humanitarian thinkers, artists, and photographers and all sorts of intensely creative people who are interested in trying to figure out how we can break out of the trenchant and reinforcing racial stereotypes that we seem to be caught in, in South Africa and, more generally, the world. How can we re-think, re-set and get ourselves out of these real difficult-seeming inpasses in society. This is a challenging initiative because this is not a popular thing to talk about. Even in a country like South Africa where race is virtually always on the front page and in a country like the United States where race is always part of our thinking, even if not on the front page. Race is something that people feel consummately uncomfortable talking about most of the time. Bringing it into polite company and, in fact, impolite company by bringing it out in the open, and getting people to talk about it in all sorts of contexts, this is tough stuff; and so we are trying to think about how we can create new educational initiatives in rural schools and in urban universities in South Africa. Also, how we can create new modes of engaging students in dialog with themselves and with teachers to get them to feel energized about being who they are, and exploring the limits of their minds without any heed to their racial classification. In other words we are trying to explore how to unlock human potential in the 21st century, in a century that was born under the shackles of race labels.

    MH: This relates really well to my next question. Some of your work related to improving the understanding of science in the U.S. includes curriculum development work for teaching genetics and genealogy to K-12 and undergraduate students. Our university’s history at Appalachian is based on teaching future educators. Our alumni are teaching in every county in North Carolina and far beyond. What do you think is important to teach future teachers of secondary school children about race as it relates to genetics and genealogy?

    DNJ: I think one of the important things to think about is — and I’m not saying young teachers or teachers of teachers should throw away the rule books — but they need to think about when they themselves were children. What did they want to know about what they looked like and why other people looked the way they did. These enduring questions have to be answered in the home and in the school, sooner rather than later. I’ve talked to a lot of educators who have said to me, “Oh we really can’t broach something like race and skin color evolution because those concepts are just too abstract and difficult and parents will push back.” I say, “Hold on, these are very simple concepts when you take them and dissect them out and look at their origins. They are actually easy to talk about when we relax and talk about basic facts such as evolution and human history.” When little kids, six, seven or eight, have this knowledge it’s like, “Whoa, what’s the problem?” Then they grow up. They learn a little bit more and get more scientific background and can learn more about why skin colors evolved the way they did, and why other features of our body evolved to be as they are, and why people have the pattern of interactions they have developed over the last few centuries. These bodies of knowledge can be built on a foundation that is started very early in life. I guess what I am calling for is a minor revolution based on the fact that we cannot continue any longer to have children in the United States who are ignorant of this information. They are ignorant of their own evolutionary history as well as their own past and how people have judged them or thought about them in the past. This is part of our legacy and we will enhance the creativity and potential of every young person if we can give them this little pot of information that can eventually set them free on their own intellectual and psychological journeys.

    MH: It seems odd, when you break it down, what we choose to focus on, to emphasize difference, because we are all distinctly different from one another.

    DNJ: The basics of what we seek to explain about human physical diversity is something that can be explained in simple declarative sentences without detailed knowledge of DNA structure or human physiology or paleoclimatology. This is simple, straight-forward, and exciting stuff that kids want to know about and it is fun to learn. That positive curiosity is something we always have to consider how we can unleash.

    MH: Is there some sort of biological reason that we use skin color as a way of categorizing ourselves?

    DNJ: Skin color is the most obvious physical characteristic. We notice skin color because we are visual primates, we notice everything about what another person looks like. We look at their skin, we look at their hair, we try to judge where they came from, how old they are, what sex they belong to and what is their style. We are visual beings and we can’t help but look at color. There is no such thing as color blindness in any strict sense. What we do with that bare perception of color, that’s the really interesting part. We, on the basis of our acculturation and what we have been taught and what we have observed in others, can make judgements and assessments about color...about the color of somebody’s sweater, their eyes or their skin. We need to recognize that we are visual and pay attention to these things. Then the weight, judgements and assessments are based on our acculturation and socialization. This occurs when we are little kids and continues on through our youth into our early adulthood. By the time we become early adults, for instance Appalachian State University students, we have certain operational stereotypes in our head. Some of these help us in our day to day lives to get things done because we can just immediately figure out to speak to one a person perhaps a little bit more slowly, or I need to help that person get into the car because they are a little older. We also need to examine the stereotypes that can unfairly prejudice our subsequent interactions with people. These kind of things, the kind of implicit bias that we carry with us, is what I really want to combat through my educational efforts for young people and for adults.

    MH: Here at Appalachian we are, like many colleges across the nation, having these discussions in private or public, small settings or large, and demonstrations in the board room about social justice and equity. At our institution this includes a lot of discussion about increasing the diversity of our community here which includes students, faculty and staff. One of the things we do to help figure out where we are and where we need to be is that we track demographic information including race and ethnicity. We ask people to fill out forms and check boxes and sometimes that can be a distressing process for people to do that. Recognizing this, I’ve been thinking a lot more about what it means to check a box on a form to identify myself in a certain way. Yesterday I got this American Community survey in my mailbox from the U.S. Census Bureau and as I look at these questions they are taking on a whole new meaning for me, given the discussions on campus lately and given some of the research that we’ve been doing. I was wondering if you don’t mind if we could look at this survey together for a minute. It says it takes about forty minutes to complete and I got stuck on question five. It says to answer both question five about hispanic origin and question six about race. For this survey it says that hispanic origins are not race. The question reads “Is this person of hispanic, latino or spanish origin?” You can choose “No, not of hispanic, latino or spanish origin, Yes, Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano, Yes Puerto Rican, Yes Cuban.” They have a whole other list of options that they suggest you can fill in the box with including Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran and then we get to the question about race. It says to mark your race and mark one or more boxes: White, Black/African American, American Indian/Alaskan Native and fill in your enrolled principal tribe and then Asian, Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Native Hawaiian you can go to other pacific Islanders, but the list goes on and on. Now, for me it’s pretty easy I can check a box and move on, but I started thinking about what this is like… the process of going through this. There is a mismash on here: there is color, ethnicity, heritage, and my thought was, “I’ll have my children answer this online because it will be a great experience for them to go through.” Then I thought what if one of them came to me and said,”Mom, what’s race?” I don’t think I could answer that question succinctly, I’m not sure I could answer it accurately and so having the opportunity to speak to an expert about this, my question is: what is race?

    DNJ: Race is one of the most difficult categories for purposes of a definition that has ever been devised by humanity. Race is a biological term when you are talking to zoologists and botanists, it’s a specific kind of organism that belongs to a specific taxonomic category of organism. When you talk to humans, race is to some people a biological, but mostly a social category. It is something that they have always identified with. They can’t put their fingers on it, but it is something they learned from their parents or it is something they came to feel comfortable identifying with. It is for all practical purpose, for most people in the United States and many other countries, it is a category to which they feel some comfort. It has to some a biological element. I have this sort of ancestry and I sort of look like this and those people used to be called European or African race. But I also come from a particular ethnic heritage and they identify in a particular way or spoken particular languages. It is an unholy mismash of biological, cultural, and linguistic kind of terms. That doesn’t help you very much operationally, but I can say most people feel they belong to a certain race. They feel that it is important and others feel that it is not important to them. They tend to have a definite feeling about whether race is something useful to them. Often people are proud of belonging to a particular race and they take pride in the accomplishments in their race. Sometimes people are not proud and simply say “I’m this race or that race”, but I’m going to move on because it doesn’t have any meaning to me. I can say that since the institution of the newer census methodology and being able to check more than one box, people have been checking more than one box. It used to be one box only, but now you can check as many boxes as you feel represents you. I think that is very exciting, because people who wouldn’t talk to their friends or acquaintances about race identification will feel very comfortable in filling out a confidential U.S. form. They’ll say, “I belong to all of these groups and that's the future of my identification… it’s messy and I’m happy that it’s messy.”

    MH: We have this ability to gather and categorize and subcategorize data including demographic information. These capabilities seem to be increasing on a daily basis, but I also wonder, as a society, do you think we are becoming less tolerant of categorization? Maybe that is what that means when you get to check.

    DNJ: Yes, I think we definitely are becoming less tolerant and part of this is because in our country there are more people who represent complex mixtures of ethnicities and old-fashioned races. You have people, especially in the major cities, who have ancestors from three or four continents. What do you call them? You call them a human being and so many young people are basically saying, “Below these categories I can’t relate to this. I am me. I am a human being. Take me as I am. Somedays I’m going to dress in this particular style and some days I will look like this, but that is me. Take me as a human being.” And this is extremely healthy. What many governments don’t like is that people are pushing back against categorization. Many governments like categories for all sorts of good and bad reasons. In South Africa for instance, they hope that continued categorization of people will lead to some economical restitution of past injustices. Probably that's not that case, but that is the theory of why racial categories and serious boxes have been retained there. In this country, the box checking is gradually on the way out. It continues to serve some purpose, to track demographic trajectories, but I think quite soon, possibly not in my lifetime but in the next fifty years, we will see those boxes disappear and see other boxes that look at people's self-assigned economic status: “Do you feel that you have had difficulties due to your ancestry or background?” There may be a whole series of boxes related to economic privation or lack of privation. This might actually be more useful to the U.S. government than the current malaise of weird colors and ethnicities that are now there.

    MH: What should be the role of higher education leadership in changing attitudes related to skin color and race?

    DNJ: I think higher education experts and future teachers need to not be fearful about talking about a formally very sensitive topic because the more we shy away from physical diversity and origins of physical diversity the more sensitive the questions become. When these issues can be addressed quite satisfactorily within a scientific framework, not as if there is a definite theory that has definite answers and this is the end of the discussion, but as a continuing scientific investigation in dialog as into why we look the way that we do. I think this is very exciting to students, so my feeling is that in higher education we have the opportunity — and in fact, the responsibility — to bring this into our classrooms. Whether we are teaching sociology, biology, or jurisprudence and education we should talk about human diversity. Where did it come from, what does it mean, what does it mean biologically, what does it come to mean in terms of social privilege or stigmatization? The open discussions that can be encouraged at a higher education level will filter down. Our teachers have to be confident spokespeople, not reluctant or worried about parental or societal feedback. We have to enter an era when we are bold about changing society’s attitudes toward color and race. It cannot begin in any better place than an institution dedicated to the teaching of teachers.

    MH: Dr. Jablonski we appreciate you taking the time to come by the studio today and talk with us. You’ll be speaking to our university community this evening and your presence on this campus is a really key component to the work that we are doing, and that we need to do, and what we will become. Thank you so much for your time and sharing your work with us today.

    DNJ: Thank you very much for inviting me and I hope you continue all your great work at this university. You are just fantastic.

    MH: Thank you so much.

Related podcasts