Variations in phenotypic characteristics—skin complexion, hair texture, facial features, and stature—play a central role in racial stratification processes throughout the world. Historically, groups that are western European in physical appearance have been privileged over people of color socially, politically, and economically. Within communities of color, individuals who are more European in appearance have been accorded higher status and more opportunities than co-ethnics who are more indigenous in appearance. These overlapping systems of phenotype-based stratification are rooted in the European conquest, colonization, and enslavement of visibly different people from Africa, Asia, and Latin America beginning near the end of the fifteenth century. To justify expansion into these newly discovered lands and the subjugation of their inhabitants, Europeans established boundaries between themselves and others based on phenotype and constructed ideologies supporting their own cultural superiority. White, European appearance became equated with civilization, beauty, and competence, while indigenous appearance became equated with savagery, ugliness, and incompetence. Miscegenation resulted in a continuum of phenotypic types in these societies, and this ideological framework sometimes supported more a privileged treatment of mixed-raced subordinates. Structural and social-Psychological consequences of phenotypic hierarchies are still evident to varying degrees in communities of color in the Americas and in other parts of the world.
At the structural level, there is a strong link between phenotypic appearance and status attainment, which has been studied most systematically in the Americas. In the United States, where the rule of hypodescent declared that an individual with any degree of African ancestry was black, the burden of blackness has not been equally shared. It is widely held, although not uncontested, that African American slaves and free persons of color with visible white ancestry had greater access to material goods, education, and cultural capital and, consequently, emerged as social and economic elites within African American communities after emancipation in the mid-1800s. More contemporary analyses of longitudinal and cross-sectional data show that lighter skin, which is usually associated with other Eurocentric facial features, is positively correlated with education, employment, occupational prestige, and income among African Americans. Indeed, some research suggests that educational and occupational differences between the darkest and lightest African Americans are nearly equal to the differences between whites and African Americans. A study published in 2006 suggested that the advantage of light skin disappeared for African American cohorts born in the mid-1940s, but it is not clear if these analyses included adequate controls for sample attrition where African Americans with darker skin and a lower socioeconomic status may have been lost to the study due to higher mortality. Thus, the most convincing evidence to date is that phenotype continues to matter for African Americans.
The link between phenotype and socioeconomic status is also evident within the Mexican-origin population in the United States and Mexico. The conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards resulted in a caste-based society that placed light-skinned, European-looking persons at the top of the social and economic hierarchy, the darker native inhabitants of Mesoamerica at the bottom, and the mestizos or persons of mixed race in an intermediate position. As a consequence of racial intermixture during the colonial era, phenotype in the contemporary Mexican-origin population ranges on a continuum from those who appear white to those who have dark skin, indigenous facial features, and shorter height than average. In contemporary Mexico and the United States, anecdotal and rigorous empirical analyses show that Mexican-origin persons with more indigenous complexions and appearance have lower levels of educational attainment, lower occupational status, and lower incomes.
Brazil has long touted that it is a racial democracy where social, economic, and political inequalities are present but are not based on race. Unlike the United States, Brazil did not implement legal segregation, and its racial ideology encouraged racial mixing with the latter resulting in a triracial system consisting of whites, browns, and blacks. Yet, in spite of its “alleged” tolerance for racial differences and a fluid racial classification system, phenotypic appearance is an important determinant of Brazilian life chances. As carefully documented by Edward Telles in Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil (2004), brown and black Brazilians are disadvantaged on all socioeconomic indicators relative to whites, and the gap between browns and blacks is quite small. He reports that even among siblings in multi-phenotypic households, those who are white are less likely to drop out of school than those who are darker. Similar to other Latin American countries, limited social mobility of mixed raced individuals blunts recognition of phenotype-based inequality. Collectively, the research on status attainment in the United States and Latin America argues that phenotypic discrimination is widespread throughout the Americas. The closer individuals of color resemble white institutional gatekeepers, the more comfortable their material lives are likely to be on average.
Interestingly, a growing mixed race population in the United States, along with other factors, suggests that the U.S. racial stratification system is moving closer to the Latin American model where an intermediate group will serve to buffer racial conflict between whites at the top and black Americans and other “symbolically” black groups positioned at the bottom of the race hierarchy. This idea is buttressed by widespread adherence to a color-blind discourse that mistakenly asserts that racism is no longer a problem in the United States. A triracial system does not mean the end of racism, but it does mean that phenotype is likely to become even more important in racial dynamics.
The phenotypic-based reward structure imposed by racially dominant elites has also affected social-psychological processes internal to communities of color. Phenotypic evaluations and biases are embedded in ethnic identity, complexion preferences, and concepts of beauty. Latin Americans in the United States tend to eschew black identity in favor of white identity even when their complexions are dark and their country of origin has a high proportion of Afro Latinos and Afro Latinas. Some research indicates that in countries like Brazil, great pains are taken to avoid or hide African ancestry. Thus, despite claims that racism does not exist in Latin America, it is clear that blackness and indigenous appearance are devalued. Preference for white or lighter skin is found in many communities of color. Among African Americans, there are indications that uniform preference for very light skin has diminished, but very black skin is not especially desired. Preferences for light skin have also been documented in Asian countries, in the Asian Diaspora, and among Americans of Mexican origin.
Among all people of color, phenotypic preferences disproportionately impact women because they define who is physically attractive, and expectations of attractiveness are applied more stringently to women than men. In many societies around the world, idealized beauty and femininity are constructed to incorporate white or light skin, long hair, thin bodies, and European facial features. Women whose phenotype places them at a distance from this ideal sometimes turn to cosmetic enhancements. African American women, for example, straighten their hair, wear colored contact lenses, and have attempted to become lighter by bleaching their skin. Modern skin bleaches often contain harsh chemicals that cause severe skin damage, and despite substantial health risks and attempts to ban them, bleaching products are a major problem in African countries and the West Indies. In Asian countries, women are bombarded with ads for facial creams that promise to lighten and brighten. Cosmetic surgeries, marketed under the guise of enhancing one’s ethnicity, are increasing among women of color in the United States, but these procedures seem to erase rather than enhance ethnic phenotype. Women engage in these practices because attractiveness operates as a form of social capital that translates into economic rewards such as access to employment and upward mobility through marriage. In some South Asian groups light skin complexion is referenced in ads for prospective spouses, and among the Kerala of India light skin can be important in dowry negotiations. Light-skinned African American women also tend to marry more economically successful males than their darker-skinned sisters. For women, looking good counts, and looking good is heavily influenced by Eurocentric facial features and light complexion.
Phenotypic appearance is the basis for racialized processes that privilege some groups over others and some individuals within groups. As nations become more racially and ethnically diverse and European cultural and aesthetic forms are exported around the world, it is likely that phenotype will continue to shape human interactions.
SEE ALSO Audits for Discrimination; Blackness; Colorism; Correspondence Tests; Discrimination; Discrimination, Racial; Preference, Color; Racism; Whiteness
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Hernández, Tanya Kateri. 2001–2002. Multiracial Matrix: The Role of Race Ideology in the Enforcement of Antidiscrimination Laws, A United States-Latin America Comparison. Cornell Law Review 87: 1093–1176.
Herring, Cedric, Verna M. Keith, and Hayward Derrick Horton. 2004. Skin Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the “Color-Blind” Era. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
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Hunter, Margaret L. 2005. Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone. New York: Routledge.
Murgia, Edward, and Edward E. Telles. 1996. Phenotype and Schooling among Mexican Americans. Sociology of Education 69 (4): 276–289.
Philips, Amali. 2004. Gendering Colour: Identity, Femininity, and Marriage in Kerala. Anthropologica 46 (2): 253–272.
Telles, Edward E. 2004. Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Verna M. Keith
‘Old Blue Eyes’ was the name given by many to Frank Sinatra. Having blue eyes is a trait that was part of his phenotype and is genetically determined, dependent on the genetic material derived from both parents. Of course a person's parents do not necessarily both have the same coloured eyes, and an individual may receive eye colour genes specifying different colours from their mother and father. In this situation one gene has dominance over the other gene, which is said to be recessive. Recessive genes can of course be passed on to progeny, and may be expressed in the next generation if dominance is not present.
Eye colour and hair colour are simple traits, but much more complex traits, such as general body form and appearance, result from the complex interplay of many genes derived from both parents. Many children grown up to look very like their mother or father, while most resemble neither very closely because of the considerable mix of the genetic material. Nuture is also able to modify the phenotype — for example, someone with the genetic make-up to express an obese phenotype would not do so if malnourished.
Some diseases that have a genetic basis give rise to unusual phenotypes. For example, children born with cystic fibrosis have inherited an abnormal gene from both parents that results in inappropriate secretions in many hollow organs, such as the lungs, intestine, gall bladder, or pancreas. This abnormal phenotype is usually not expressed by either of the parents, each of whom has one normal gene which is dominant and one abnormal gene which is recessive. The child receiving a set of two abnormal genes, one from each parent, will express these and show the abnormal phenotype.
Alan W. Cuthbert
See also genetics, human; heredity.
Phenotypes are the physical characteristics, such as eye color, displayed by an individual. Phenotype, often used in relation to specific variable characteristics or disease states manifested by an individual, contains no information about the underlying genetic determinants of the characteristics. The genotype contains the genetic information that is used to determine the range of potential phenotypes. Within this range, the environment and other nongenetic factors determine the final phenotype. For example, cystic fibrosis is a phenotype. Conversely, the description of a mutation in the gene that causes this disease is a genotype. The links between genes and particular normal and abnormal phenotypes are being identified using results of the Human Genome Project. Identification of these links is improving child health by providing genetic counselors with detailed information on the causes, phenotypic variability, and environmental factors that lead to birth defects and other diseases. Nongenetic factors influencing a phenotype that results from a particular genotype can be used by genetic counselors to suggest environmental or lifestyle changes that can lessen disease severity.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "The Science behind the Human Genome Project." Available from http://www.ornl.gov/hgmis/project/info.html; INTERNET.