As The Disordered Cosmos makes its way into the world, part of the work I hope it is doing is prompting conversations about how majestic the subatomic realm is, and how horrid our social conditions for studying it can be. That does not mean the book says everything that needs to be said on either subject, but I do hope it sends people searching. Today, in addition to reminding you of ways to support the book, I want to briefly take up a subject that the book touches on but could never do full justice to by itself: colorism. The tl;dr is I have some intro remarks just to situate readers and then I suggest some substantive reading.
Before I get to that, I just want to quickly mention that I know people are having a hard time getting their hands on the book because it’s sold out so many places, including indies. First, several of the stores where I did initial events still have copies. Also Barnes and Noble has copies, and they are discounted by 11%! Also, at the end of this email, I list upcoming events, including my UK launch, which is this Thursday at 7 PM BST/2 PM EDT.
Chapter 5, “The Physics of Melanin” is where you will find most of the book’s discussion about colorism, in the context of how this extraordinary and beautiful molecule, melanin, has been socially defined as a problem when it is actually magnificent. I talk about how Blackness as an idea arose out of white supremacist race science and also about how Black people have turned it into something more than that — a remix on what is terrible to make for ourselves something wonderful.
I talk also about the complexity of how genealogy (a word that unfortunately I think I don’t use) non-linearly connects to appearance — e.g. people assume I’m light because my dad is white, but my grandfather who had two Black parents was just as light as I am. That’s because of the legacy of rape during slavery. In fact, the majority of Black Americans (and possibly Black Atlantic) have some kind of European and/or Indigenous to the Americas heritage. Because this leads to diverse genetic outcomes, the Black community comes in an array of shades of brown: and the darker folks are, the curlier their hair, the bigger their noses, the worse they are treated under white supremacy. This I try to cover in my book.
But. There is a limit to what I can say as someone who is light skinned. The way white supremacy impacts Black people is not simply organized between who is white and who is Black. No, instead white supremacy stratifies Black people into a hierarchy where lighter people are generally considered smarter, more trustworthy, less dangerous and if not fully human, more human than darker skinned people. Light skinned folks experience racism, but we experience the least of it compared to darker folks. This system works to divide Black people from each other, by suggesting to lighter skinned people that if we just work hard to be favorable to white people, they might share their power with us and treat us as equals. This disrupts the potential for solidarity that would allow Black folks to work together most efficiently to confront white supremacy. And it has been a deeply effective strategy, not just because it works on so many light skinned people — far too many of whom often take great pains to proclaim their non-Black European heritage — but also because the Black community has widely adopted colorism as a communal practice. Our own romantic and magazine publishing practices reflect a preference for thin light skinned Black people with small noses and straighter hair, for example. (Which is to say that colorism is entangled with fatphobia, WASPy ideas about beautiful facial features, and texturism.)
This has everything to do with science. For one, scientific racism is where stories about fundamental differences between people of different skin colors (melanin levels) were justified through “objective empiricism” and institutionalized. Also, the specific practice of colorism is salient in a world where intellect and cultural fit matters, given that colorism teaches all of us regardless of identity to think darker skinned people are less intelligent than others and culturally deficient than others. Plus, scientists are responsible for working on and refining skin lightening technologies that have been used to haunt and torture people for decades.
So, it’s a problem that in science, even when racism is a topic of discussion, colorism is often ignored. The other problem, in my personal estimation, is that when colorism is discussed, too often it focuses on “benefits” to light skinned people, rather than centering the experiences of dark skinned people. Finally white people are rarely called to task for being the ultimate intended beneficiaries of colorism, which is a violent and divisive strategy that upholds white supremacy.
I want to encourage scientists to start educating themselves about colorism. It’s well past time for the phenomenon of colorism to be named and for it to figure centrally in our conversations about who is allowed in the room and why. Here I suggest two essays to start with because they helpfully situate colorism in historical context AND also highlight the way colorism is a very gendered phenomenon:
Next, I’d encourage people to pick up fiction that touches on this topic, most notably Kaitlyn’s new brilliant novel Libertie. The book is simply brilliant and had me thinking about Toni Morrison (whose novels are also good starters on this topic). It’s about Black women in medicine, mothers and daughters, Black American colonialism in Haiti, Black patriarchy, and the pressure to be extraordinary when you just want to live. I highly recommend it for so many reasons, including its frank focus on the way colorism is woven into every day life.
Coincidentally, Kaitlyn and I are going to be in conversation TOMORROW *virtually* at the Harvard Club of Boston, and the event is free at 6 PM eastern. Registration will be open until 3 hours before event start. Of course I’m happy for you to come to see me, but importantly: come to see Kaitlyn, who was just last week named a Guggenheim Fellow. She’s brilliant on pretty much any topic. Her twitter account is also one of my favorites.
This isn’t a comprehensive note about colorism. I need y’all to do your homework without handholding. You can start with some of the work I cite in The Disordered Cosmos! There’s also lots of academic literature that will come up on a search engine — or start with the citations to the article I linked above. The NMAAHC provides a good starting point for thinking about colorism in the media. As you read, start to think about actions you can take in daily life to end your participation in colorism. Ask yourself if you treat the light skinned Black scientists (like me) that you meet differently from dark skinned ones. Ask if all the Latinx scientists you meet tend to be non-Black. Ask yourself whether you account for colorism and casteism in your understandings of what your Indian colleagues are dealing with. Etc.
Nella Larsen’s Passing is also a great novel to pick up to understand how colorism worked in context of the color line.
Before I say good-bye, here are my upcoming VIRTUAL events:
Tuesday 4/13 at 6 PM EDT with Kaitlyn Greenidge at Harvard Club of Boston
Thursday 4/15 at 7 PM BST/2 PM EDT at the Royal Institution
Friday 4/16 at 12 PM CDT with Christen Smith and Joshua Roebke at UT Austin
Tuesday 5/4 at 7 PM BST/2 PM EDT with Adam Ferner at Cafe Culture North East
Also stay tuned for details on bookstore events where I will be interviewing Elissa Washuta and Moya Bailey about their new books, White Magic and Misogynoir Transformed (respectively), which you should 100% preorder RIGHT NOW.