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Black and White in ‘Shades of Grey

'On the alter of prejudice we crucify our own, yet- The blood of all children is the color of God'
…..????????John William Jr.

Culture, language, religion and region play important roles in an individual being favored or discriminated against, // but the mother of all reasons is, the person’s skin color.

Recently, the voyeuristic world reeled under the impact of the venom spewed on Shilpa Shetty by fellow contestants on UK’s reality show, ‘Celebrity Big Brother’. The participants, who were drawn from various sections of the western society, were living in social isolation, as the rules of the game demanded. Sharing space with people who were dissimilar, invoked the smoldering demons of pride, prejudice, discrimination and racial intolerance, resulting in the reality show getting too ‘real’ for comfort.

What is the basis of this unsavory loathe, exclusive to the Homo sapiens? It has been widely propounded that the origin of prejudice, based on color, can be traced to biblical times, when Ham, the son of Noah, came to be portrayed as ‘black’ after he was ‘blessed’ with a curse from his father. What actually transpired can be best left to the father –son duo, but the curse of the father transformed his son into a ‘black’ being-someone accursed. This prototype, sadly, holds sway even today in several regions of the globe, with blackness being equated to backwardness and servitude, and has been used to justify slavery in various parts of the world.

It is imperative that we analyze the scientific basis that paved way for society’s color- coded stratification. In humans, melanin is a pigment that imparts color to the skin, hair, pigmented epithelium of the retina, zona recticularis of the adrenal gland, stria vascularis of the inner ear and some areas of the brain. Melanin molecules are composed of aggregates of smaller molecules of polyacetylene, polypyrrole, polyaniline and their copolymers. The type of melanin differs according to the proportion and banding pattern of these smaller molecular components. Melanin is a conductive biopolymer and a neuropeptide that generates an influence on the neural activity and permits the conduction of light, heat, radiation and kinetic energy.

There are three common types of melanin. Pheomelanin is found in abundance in fair- skinned individuals. This type of melanin generates a pinkish- red color and is generously present in people with red hair. Eumelanin polymers are found in the hair and skin of dark-skinned people and are further categorized as brown and black eumelanin. Decreased quantity of the black eumelanin polymers leads to the graying of the hair, while a decrease in the brown eumelanin results in blond or yellow- colored hair. Eumelanin polymers are the most common type of melanins present in humans and a reduction in these pigments result in a condition called Albinism. Neuromelanin is a dark pigment present in the neurons of the brain nuclei such as the Substantia Nigra, Locus Ceruleus, the nucleus associated with the Vagus nerve and the Raphe nucleus of the Pons Medulla. The neuromelanins are usually not found at birth, but evolve gradually during maturation to adulthood. The decrease or loss of these pigmented neurons are indicative of degenerative diseases, like the Alzheimer’s.

Besides deficiency, the molecular weight of melanin can be decreased due to various factors, like oxidative stress or exposure to light. A decrease in the molecular weight or an impairment in the polymerization of the melanin molecule results in the conversion of the normally anti-oxidant polymer, into a pro-oxidant one. These pro- oxidant melanin molecules are implicated in macular degeneration, affecting the eye and melanoma, a type of skin cancer.

Melanin in the skin is produced by cells called melanocytes. These melanocytes insert grains of melanin into specialized compartments, called melanosomes. These melanosomes that accumulate over the cell nucleus, protect the DNA from the damaging mutations caused by the UV rays of the sun. Although all humans generally have the same number of melanocytes, the expression of the melanin producing genes in these cells varies in different individuals and different ethnic groups. This has generated a wide spectrum of skin shades and tones in individuals across the globe.

People, whose forefathers lived near the equator, are amply endowed with eumelanin in the skin and hair, imparting a brown or black color. This pigment acts as a natural sunscreen and renders protection while being exposed to the sun. The fair-skinned folks lack this protection and melanoma results. Besides, the dark-skinned people are blessed with more youthful suppleness, resulting in the production of fewer wrinkles. But, they run the risk of being vitamin D- deficient, as the high concentration of melanin could ward off sunlight, a primary requirement in the vitamin’s production.

If recent anthropological musings are to be believed, all of humanity has an African progenitor who, with his very high eumelanin content, was sufficiently equipped to face the blazing equatorial sun. But when the human race began to spread across the terrains of Europe and Asia, eumelanin was produced in accordance to the requirement, enhanced by the selective trends of nature. This resulted in a ‘descent with modification’ as proposed by Darwin, providing the phenotypic variations characteristic of the humans.

Discrimination, in some form or the other, has always been part of the history of the human race. Attempts should be made to connect individuals by treading the scientific path and by genera ting a better understanding of man as a species, and also of his biological and cultural evolution. As we dream of a global village and a world sans cross- country borders, it would indeed be apt to ponder on the futility of humans alienating each other on the basis of color and ethnicity. Did the barriers arise in the minds of men before they were transformed into geographical divides, or was it the other way round? It might be worthwhile to investigate.


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