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The White Man’s Burden

It takes about 8 minutes for light to travel from the Sun to Earth. This light travels through space, gets filtered by our atmosphere, and hits our planet.  The infrared, ultraviolet, and visible light rays are paramount to our existence. Fortunately, we are the right distance from the sun to have enough warmth for life to flourish. And the ozone layer filters most of the harmful UV rays.

Unfortunately, this light doesn’t hit our planet uniformly: countries closer to the equator tend to get more sunlight than countries closer to the poles. Furthermore, the Earth is tilted. This tilt, in combination with our moon’s orbit around us and our orbit around the sun, gives rise to different seasons. So some could simultaneously be getting more sunlight (and warmth) while others have to tough out the cold.


This uneven distribution of sunlight has other ramifications. About 70,000 years ago, the first humans began migrating out of Africa to other parts of our planet.  They had spread across Europe, Asia, and Australia by about 40,000 BC. Migration to the Americas took place 20,000 to 15,000 years ago, and by 2,000 years ago, most of the Pacific Islands were colonized. This trend continued  through the subsequent millennia until most of the planet became home to our species.

The ultraviolet light that does reach Earth has a significant impact on human skin. It benefits human skin by generating Vitamin D production. Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption and bone health, strengthens the immune system, has anti-inflammatory properties, and can be protective against some cancers. Conversely, too much exposure to ultraviolet radiation can deteriorate folic acid (necessary for healthy fetuses), cause sunburn and even skin cancer.

As a result, human skin has adapted a way to defend itself from the dangers of UV radiation: melanin, a source of pigment, acts as a natural sunscreen. Those who live closer to the equator tend to need more melanin, and consequently, have darker skin. Melanin balances the need for maintaining optimal Vitamin D and folic acid levels while minimizing sun burn. 6827_fs

This relationship between light and color has had grave consequences throughout human history. After deciding upon the inherent inferiority of the high melanin peoples, the low melanin peoples took it upon themselves to make colonies and slaves out of places and people saturated with this agent of darkness. This successful trend spanned several cultures, continents, and centuries. There are several examples in recent history:  Americans enslaved Africans, Britain established a domineering colony in India, and immigrants to Australia marginalized the Aborigines and restricted their rights.

It is estimated that 12 million slaves were captured from Africa and taken to the Americas alone between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Eventually, thanks to people like Abraham, Mohandas, Martin, Rosa, Malcolm, etc. this low melanin superiority complex began to evaporate. Freedom was granted, legal rights were slowly gained, perceptions began to shift, and diversity became increasingly normal.

Starting around the 1970’s, however, this superiority complex began to inverse upon itself: after centuries of dehumanizing dark-skinned people, many light-skinned people, ironically, pursued making their skin darker. By lying in a cocoon of ultraviolet radiation, a low melanin person can darken their skin without depending on the sun.

This practice cultivates cancer in the very cells that produce those now unattractively sparse amounts of color. Regular use of tanning beds triples the chances of developing melanoma. Melanoma is the most fatal  form of skin cancer that develops in melanocytes, the skin cells that produce melanin. Natural selection favored melanin in people who were exposed to excessive sunlight to prevent skin cancer.

Like slavery, the tanning bed industry has been lucrative and popular. In America, tanning has an estimated annual revenue of $5 billion, and about 30 million Americans tan indoors per year. Also like slavery, indoor tanning causes unnecessary suffering and death: 76% of melanoma cases among adults under 30, and indoor tanners are 69% more likely to develop early-onset basal cell carcinoma.

Why would anyone voluntarily put themselves in a position to develop cancer? Is it mere coincidence, general ignorance, apathy, or some subconscious manifestation of “white guilt”? Regardless, in this case, it seems like the slavery has recycled into a different, insidious, and self-imposed form.

It’s even more sad when one considers the fact that visible light only makes up a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum; there are other wavelengths of light through which we can see (only with the help of the right technology). But our eyes have adapted to visible light, so it is obviously the foundation for how we view the world.

In Billions and Billions, Carl Sagan commented on this: “We’re prejudiced against visible light. We’re visible light chauvinists.”  He also pointed out that if we saw in ultraviolet or infrared, someone from Europe and someone from Africa would appear black. In fact, most humans would appear black under most of the spectrum, except under visible light frequencies. So this “visible light chauvinism” has led to other forms of prejudice.


Even if we saw in infrared, would we still discriminate against other members of our own species for other variations in their appearance? Would we still confuse subjective differences for indications of absolute inferiority and superiority?

The sun keeps creating energy, and will continue to  for 5 billion more years. And for as long as we keep surviving off its 8 minute-old light, it seems like we will also continue to create misinterpretations of the sun’s impact on our eyes, skin, and lives. The forms of oppression and disease may shift, but the underlying self-deception will persist. The day we become free from this flaw remains to be seen.


One comment on “The White Man’s Burden

  1. It’s weird to think that if the sun exploded we wouldn’t know for 8 minutes.

    I’m definitely running a low melanin count and will for life. Always kinda been jealous of my friends who could tan well and/or easily, but vitiligo insures I’ll never join that club. Supposedly you can “treat” it with UV-B light, although how healthy can that be? Reading your blogpost inspired me to go read the wikipedia page for vitiligo; further on down the page it gets sort of complicated, but mentions that certain people who have it actually have higher resistance to skin cancer. Hopefully I have that type, but just to be safe, I’m going to assume I don’t.

    It’s pretty sweet that the infrared SLR setup is now ready for action… You and I can get a taste of how the world looks in a different light. 😉

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