Why Humans Have Different Skin Colors

I  mentioned that I went back to the Philippines recently, and brought back lots of stuff. One of the things I also brought home was a container of whitening lotion – to use on my elbows, which tend to darken because I lean on them a lot while typing or drawing, and since I do a lot of that, they darken (as well as dry out) on a regular basis. I’ll cheerfully admit to my vanity that I have even skin tone – a lovely golden toast color, that I have no desire to whiten, the way a lot of Filipinos, and well, Asians want to. I don’t agree with the latter explanations of the post; white skin in Asian culture is tied to wealth and nobility, and existed as a paragon of beauty (for both men and women) – note the reference to pre-Qin China.

Personally, skin colour is one of those things I’ve never paid attention to in my dealings with people. I treat everyone the same – entirely dependent on how the person I am interacting with behaves. (Apparently, that’s ‘racist and discriminatory’ to some folks who haven’t picked up a dictionary within the last 50 years, the claim of which makes no sense, since it’s the other person’s behaviour toward me that I’m judging them by, e.g. their own actions and words.) I’m big on treating people as people, which is far less stressful and aging than constantly being on the lookout for something small and petty to be offended by. There are bigger things to get upset about, but that’s a discussion for some other time.

Me, I like my golden toast skin hue (It’s a permanent, perfect sun-kissed tan that I never have to work on!); although since I live in Australia, it makes it a bit hard to find make up at times. Fortunately, I am not the only Asian in Australia, and there are Asian grocery stores and such that I can source the occasional specific-to-my-ethnic-mix cosmetic needs, which are not, fortunately for me, that great a need. (Just need a thin layer of foundation so that the make up has that to cling to, in order to last longer. (More of the blush than anything else, really.) I should’ve picked up a pack of that face powder while I was back in the Philippines, but I forgot, having other priorities at the time. No biggie; and I’m not going to scream ‘BUT THAT IS UNFAIR’ (if I do, I’m joking; much in the same way I make fun about my being short, and there being no lovely thigh-high boots for someone as short as me that also has curves in my calves and thighs.) Also, seriously, there’s the Internet, and if I really was looking for that and willing to pay for it, I am pretty sure I could find that face powder.

Still, the reality is, folks have skin hues, as part of their physical descriptor; and frankly, that’s a better alternative to transparent skin. Can you imagine what that would be like? Seeing one’s muscles, bared? No thanks. Besides, this completely ignores the benefits of skin hues and melanin. Long and short of it is though, physical description is part of of how we tell each other apart – it’s how humans are able to identify a friend or a member of your family, because unlike other animals, we don’t identify each other by scent. We do it with our eyeballs and the use of our disproportionately huge brains. There are numerous theories why different groups have different skin colours (my main one is ‘evolutionary development in response to environmental exposure to the sun and it’s strength in varying regions of the world’) as well as legends, myths and folk tales that served as an explanation for our ancient fore-bearers. They served well enough that these folks got on with the business of living instead of sitting there, paralysed by ‘why?’ and starving to death.

A friend of mine recently told Rhys one of the more humorous Filipino folk tales as to why human beings all have different skin colours. It goes somewhat like this:

When God created people he shaped them, like how we make cookies or bread – from dough, and he needed to bake them. The first batch was taken out too early and was undercooked and pale – these became the people with white skin tones. The next batch was baked too long and had burnt – these became the people with black skin tones. The last batch was baked just right and evenly – these became the brown people.

Rhys’ response was “So albinos were the people who were never baked at all!”; which made my friend laugh, because maybe he had a point!

There is a longer, more detailed myth of how people came to be, which is a bit more interesting, and has, of course, it’s regional differences, but I found particularly fascinating because of the nutshell encapsulation of a number of core values that the pre-colonial Filipinos had. Looking up the legend of Malakas at Maganda, I found this story, though it’s telling differs quite a bit from my memory of the legend:

When the world first began there was no land; there was only the Sea and the Sky, and between them flew a huge, beautiful Kite (a bird similar to a hawk). One day, the bird, which had nowhere to land and rest, grew tired of flying about, and in frustration stirred up the Sky in a quarrel against the Sea. The Sky threw rain, thunder, and lightning that reached the Sea, who in turn rose up and hurled waves and hurricanes that reached the Sky.

In order to restrain its fury, the Sky showered a multitude of massive boulders down upon the Sea, which became the islands that formed the Philippines. These islands prevented the waters from rising any more – instead causing them to flow back and forth, and thereby creating the tides. Afterwards, the Sky then ordered the Kite to light on one of the newly-formed islands to build her nest, and to leave the Sea and the Sky in peace.

Now at this same time the Land Breeze and the Sea Breeze were married, and they had a child which they named Bamboo. One day, when Bamboo was floating against the sea, it struck the feet of the Kite. Shocked, hurt, and angered that anything should strike it, the bird furiously pecked at the bamboo until it split in half. Out of one section came a golden-bronze colored man, named Malakas (Strong One) and from the other half came a similarly hued woman, named Maganda (Beautiful One).

The earthquake then called on all the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea to see what should be done with these two, and the animals decided that they should marry each other. Together, Malakas and Maganda had many children, and from them eventually came all the different races of people.

After a while the parents grew very tired of having so many idle and useless children around. They wished to be rid of them, but they knew of no other place to send them off to. Time went on and the children became even more numerous that the parents could no longer enjoy any peace. One day, in an act of pure irritation and desperation, Malakas seized a stick and began beating them on all sides.

This so frightened the children that they all fled in different directions; seeking some place to hide both within and outside the house. Some of the children ran into hidden rooms in the house, several concealed themselves within the actual walls, while others hid in the fireplace. Some ran outside and the rest fled out to the sea.

Now it happened that those who went into the hidden rooms of the house later became the chiefs of the islands (Maharlikas); and those who concealed themselves in the walls became slaves (Alipins). Those who hid in the fireplace became the Negritos and the Aetas; and those who ran outside turned into free men (Timawas). As for those who fled to the Sea; they were gone many years, and when their children eventually came back, they had become the white foreigners.


A different version (which is closer to what I remember) notes that the children ‘were of many different colors and spoke different languages’ – explaining how the pre-colonial Filipinos saw the other people they met before the Spaniards came – the Japanese, the Chinese, the Indians, etc; so they weren’t just ‘the white foreigners.’ The other version I remember also said that the children of Malakas and Maganda became idle and too happy to depend on their parents for everything, thus the parents chased or scared them away, which caused them to flee to other parts of the world and hide until they felt it was safe to come back.

I find bits of the legend interesting because of how different the world view is here. It is implied that the people with other skin tones and languages are seen as ‘long lost kin’, and the reason for their becoming lost was because their ancestors had done something that the ultimate parents had disapproved of and become very angry about – laziness and idleness being a common one – so the parents did what any good parent does if their child decides that being a lazy bum when they’re grown is the way to go: kick them out. While some of the ‘children’ went far away, and changed, they’re still seen as kin, as humans, regardless of the differences in appearance, customs, and language.

This implies that laziness is seen as a very serious sin in the ancient Filipino worldview. Further, early Filipinos saw nature as the first and most powerful force in the universe.

The simultaneous births of Malakas and Maganda also imply that early Filipinos saw men and women as equals (and parts of the same whole, given their birthing from the same bamboo), though they held the sexes to different ideals – men should be strong, powerful, hard-working, disciplinarian; while women are idealised as beautiful, sweet, pleasing; though it should be noted that in the story she is shown to share the opinion of her husband that their offspring were too idle to keep around – this indicates that she was no pushover or bleeding heart! The earliest Filipinos valued productivity and understood that working hard for one’s own sake could never be seen as a bad thing.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.