On March 21, 1960 in Sharpeville, South Africa, police opened fire on a group of protestors, injuring somewhere between 150 and 300 people and killing 69 others. The demonstrators were protesting apartheid, a legalized system of racial classification and segregation.
Enforced by the South African government, inhabitants were classified into racial groups, with black South Africans being disenfranchised, forced onto “homeland” territory (similar to First Nations reserves in Canada), and stripped of their citizenship. Under apartheid, black South Africans were considered inferior to whites, and even though apartheid was abolished in the 1990s, it still influences South African society and politics today.
In 1966, recognizing the great injustices, conflicts, and inequalities that stem from racism, the United Nations declared March 21st to be the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
This year, March 21st is also Good Friday, a holiday which, in the western world at least, will likely overshadow this parallel event. Nevertheless, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is one that every person of every ethnicity should observe in some way.
Racists in particular (and yes, there are still plenty of them out there) might use it to look into exactly how and why classification on the basis of skin colour evolved.
Anthropology, the study of human culture, examines virtually every aspect of a people: Religion, division of labour, gender roles, food preparation and diet, and of course, physical characteristics. Examining these components of culture, identifying how they differ from others, and participating in them, anthropologists not only strive to understand difference, but also appreciate it.
This is in part what Carleton Coon had in mind when he came up with a classification system for physical characteristics. Coon, a well-travelled anthropologist, noticed variation of physical features from one country to the next, and, after much research and observation, came up with a very broad system of classification based on skin colour. Within the categories of “race” (mongoloid, negroid, caucasoid, etc.), he also
examined finer features such as eye shape, nose shape and size, hair form, height and weight, and so on. Coon did not intend to classify people by worth, or to suggest that one “race” was superior to another; he was simply trying to understand the physical differences between people and how they evolved.
From an anthropological standpoint, even the slightest physical difference can be important. For example, nose size and shape can indicate the type of climate and level of humidity one either lives in now, or in which one’s ancestors lived. All of our physical characteristics evolved over time, and they evolved so that our bodies were best equipped to survive in the environment.
In the same way, and to be overly simplistic, darker skin tones evolved in warmer climates with greater sun exposure — the dark pigment of the skin blocks the absorption of too much Vitamin D. In climates with less sun, skin is paler to allow adequate absorption of Vitamin D. That’s why when northerners travel to exotic, sunny locations and luxuriate on the beaches, they tan. They’re not just toasting: their skin is responding to the sun by darkening to prevent Vitamin D poisoning.
Of course, the evolution of skin colour, and of race itself, is far more complex and involved than just that, but the point is, environmental and evolutionary factors play a large role in our physical characteristics.
Unfortunately, Coon’s classification system has tended to be used much differently than he had in mind, to segregate and discriminate rather than to understand and appreciate. Still, his work serves to illuminate just how unfair, not to mention illogical, racism is.
So please mark March 21st on your calendar for next year. Any colour of marker will do.