Erasing identity?

By Razib Khan | October 19, 2006 11:02 am

In the comments Fly states:

Within the next two decades it will become easy to modify skin color and hair characteristics. A person’s skin color may be a fashion statement much as a woman’s hair color is today. Rather than most people being brown, I expect some will opt for attention garnering colors more commonly seen in fruits.
I’m hopeful that racial group identifiers that energize identity politics will disappear.

Hopeful is a good word to describe how I feel, I do think that within a few decades racial identity will be far more malleable than it is today. In particular, I believe the one organ that is going to be easily altered first will be th tone the skin, perhaps the most visible racial characteristic. Judging by the popularity of Fair and Lovely whoever designs a cheap and non-toxic cream which renders skin white will make the profits from Viagra seem trivial. White skin may then no longer be a privilege, but a consumer accoutrement. And yet, this comment made me think of the cochlear implant controversy that has riven the deaf community. Though these implants do not mimic natural hearing, they do provide a modicum of “correction” for deafness. I use the quotes specifically because some deaf activists do not consider the lack of hearing a problem, and argue that these artificial devices may signal the death of their culture! As 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents who will no doubt enthusiastically adopt these treatments I don’t dismiss these concerns. But this issue reminds us of the power of socially mediated identities of group and community. Myself, I put little stock in such things, and I am generally rather insensitive to the rights of “communities.” But the looming dilemmas posed by such technologies will force us to face our assumptions as a culture.

  • DragonScholar

    I’d say another factor on this rather interesting area of speculation is social acceptance. Will my boss mind if I come to work, say, in my new “Zebra” skin pattern? Will people react strangely to someone whose ethnic features don’t match their skin color?

  • razib

    Will people react strangely to someone whose ethnic features don’t match their skin color?
    no. people get used to it. if you meet people from brazil or cape verde you will face people with light skin, blue eyes and frizzy blonde hair with ‘negroid’ features. the inverse is of course how many south asians appear (one reason that south asians were referred to as ‘white niggers’ by southerners who met them pre-civil rights era).

  • Spike Gomes

    As someone who’s partially deaf and probably going to become fully deaf as he ages (if no advance corrects it) I feel like slapping upside the head anyone against something that gives the ability to correct deafness.
    Not hearing is a problem, one that can be dealt with, but much more so when it comes to intangibles. One can work around things like communication, but truly what would hurt the most is the loss of the ability to enjoy music, which has absolutely no utility, but subjectively has quite a bit of value to many people. I can’t imagine life when I can no longer listen to Mozart or John Coltrane. It would be a crime to rob such things from people in the name of some “identity”.

  • Agnostic

    no. people get used to it.
    No matter how much Brazilian porn I see, I still do a double-take when I see a white girl who’s packin’ that much heat in the seat.

  • Neal

    But once physical characteristics have moved from issues of “pure” biology to elective issues, won’t the social context change? I mean there are still jobs where tattoos, piercing, and facial hair are considered major taboos, even though each has been a staple of human culture (or biology in the case of hair) throughout recorded history. People draw social distinctions based on odd things.
    In the case of racism, the social disadvantagement has nothing to do with skin color per se. It has to do with the fact that, at one point in time, national origin was thought to connote differences in behavior, aptitude, or other traits. As long as there’s some other arbitrary phenotypic indication of non-European ancestry, it will probably be used to discriminate. I’d imagine there would be some backlash from minority communities as well, given the distaste with which community leaders in these communities view things like skin lighteners or hair straighteners already.

  • pconroy

    Agnostic et al,
    You need to check out Snoop Dogg & Pharrell – Beautiful, if you haven’t already done so…
    Some WAAAAY HOOOOT chicas 😉

  • Steve Sailer

    How many people really get confused about the race of albinos they meet? Race is a lot more than skin deep.

  • razib

    good point steve. i was being a little personally biased here as i think that if south asians got skin lightening cream our freatures aren’t distinctive enough that people would be able to tell (white people that is).

  • Agnostic

    You need to check out Snoop Dogg & Pharrell – Beautiful, if you haven’t already done so…
    Woo! Brasil — a terra das gatas mais lindas do mundo!


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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