How Black People Became White People

Where it all started
Where it all started

It’s summer here in Sacramento, which means lots of 100+ degree days (yes, it’s a dry heat, but so is an oven). If global warming kicks up the thermostat any further, I think this place may become truly uninhabitable.

Being the dutiful mom I try to be, I slather my wriggly, pale offspring in heaps of sunscreen every time we leave the house. My diligence has even caused their Southern grandma (John’s mother) some concern. “Are they healthy?” she once asked me while visiting, “They are so fair. Are they getting outside at all?”

“Of course they are,” I replied, “I just put a lot of sunblock on them. Because we are white people. And we may as well get used to it.”

I am a firm believer in regular sunscreen use. It all started when I was in junior high school and my face started exploding. Overdriven adolescent hormones endlessly pumping out oil lakes above the waist, I was cursed with cystic acne covering my face, chest, shoulders and back.

It’s not easy facing high school with severe acne. At an age when you are incredibly self-conscious about your appearance, it hurts to catch people wincing whenever they look at you.

And teenagers are not kind. I’d hear the words “pizza face” and “moon face” go by when people talked about me.  Once, a friend reported how my name came up in a group discussion where they said, “She’s so gross! Why doesn’t she ever wash her face?”

They couldn’t have been more wrong. I was obsessive about washing my face, reading any article on skincare and trying every product I could get my desperate hands on. Nothing worked.

Eventually, my parents took me to a dermatologist, who put me on a course of every acne medication known to man. Benzoyl Peroxide, Cleocin T, tetracycline… you name it, I tried it. I finally started working up the concentrations of Retin-A, which gave me some relief, but at what cost? My skin turned bright red and started peeling. It felt tight and uncomfortable. I distinctly remember looking into the mirror, raising my eyebrows, and watching a fault line of skin tear across my forehead as though a nose earthquake had just hit.

I couldn’t use any makeup to cover up the redness because it just made me break out harder, “noncomedogenic” or not. To make matters worse, the medications made me so sun-sensitive that I would burn within 15 minutes of being outside. So I had to slather on ample sunscreen, which just added to the shiny, greasy mess. I felt horrible and powerless. I would look longingly at my fresh-faced friends and the gorgeous models in Neutrogena ads, shake my fast at the heavens and wonder why am I so cursed?

But many curses are blessings in disguise and I ended up getting the last laugh. You see, while my peers were cavorting around in their careless adolescent beauty, I was developing diligent sunscreen habits. My skin finally cleared up in college, but my sunscreen use continued. Now, at an age when many of my contemporaries are battling sunspots, wrinkles, and slackened elasticity, my skin still looks pretty good. I even get carded on occasion.

Why is this? Well, because 80 % of skin aging  is caused by sunlight exposure. Although the sun provides needed Vitamin D, it also bathes us in a demon-mix of ultraviolet radiation. Sunlight is hell on your skin, especially if you’re white.

You see, all humankind arose in the African continent, where sunlight is ample. Because sunlight is so plentiful there, it’s helpful to have darker skin, which provides a ton of natural sunblock. This is why so many black people still look awesome at the same ages that sun-worshipping caucasians have started to resemble human saddlebags.

Dark skin is perfect for African living, but around 130,000 years ago, severe droughts prompted some Africans to look elsewhere to set up camp. They started migrating across continents, eventually settling all over the  globe.

In places far north of the equator, there is much less sunlight. You don’t need as much sun protection, but you still need to get your Vitamin D. So over time, people in northern areas started evolving paler skin, because it’s better for absorbing Vitamin D.

We always hear the phrase “survival of the fittest” tossed around when discussing evolution and many people misinterpret the word “fitter” to mean “better.” But “fitter” does not always mean “better,” it just means better adapted to the particular environment in which the species finds itself. People across the world developed skin tones that roughly correspond to where they lived, relative to the equator.

Problems arise when you toss a species into a different environment than the one to which it has adapted. It’s like throwing a freshwater fish into the ocean. Sunblock for white people in sunny places is like a salt shaker for freshwater fish in the ocean.

Kind of a weird analogy, I realize, because fish don’t have hands and can’t use salt shakers. But you get my point.

Fun fact: Australia has the  highest incidence of skin cancer in the world. This makes sense when you consider that many Australians are Celtic and Anglo-Saxon transplants to a tropical/desert climate. The natives are darker skinned.

All this melanoma talk makes it seem like white people got a raw deal, but black people have their own concerns. They are much more likely to be deficient in Vitamin D, which can lead to a number of health problems, and are advised to take Vitamin D supplements if they aren’t getting enough.

Armed with this information, I plan to teach my daughters why it is very, very important to regularly use sunblock. We are white people living in California. I wish I had been even better about using it while growing up, and am glad that sunblock technology is improving.

I also plan to stress why they are to never, under any circumstances, use a tanning bed. Yes, bronzed skin is beautiful. You know what’s not beautiful? Wrinkles, age spots, and skin cancer, which is what ultimately happens when you cook white people in tanning beds.

Anyone besides me find it both funny and tragic that half the world is buying skin-lighteners while the other half is trying to get a tan? People, please… accept your skin tone. Roses and orchids are both beautiful, even though they look different.

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