Saturday, May 30, 2009

Paging Dr. Gupta: "ethnic skin?!?"

If I knew a lawyer, I'd sue Dr. Sanjay Gupta for anthropological malpractice. On his CNN program "House Call" this morning, Dr. Gupta had a segment on skin cancer. To discuss the particular problems this poses for people with dark skin color, Dr. Gupta brought on a "specialist in ethnic skin."

"Ethnic skin?"

We might expect first-year college students to have such a muddled notion of "ethnicity," but a presumably well-educated person like Dr. Gupta? Uncritically applying the prevailing folk model concept of "ethnicity," Dr. Gupta has conflated ethnicity with biological differences, such as skin color. Anthropologists, in constructing scientific descriptions and explanations, take care to separate ethnicity from biology. Ethnicity, for anthropologists, refers to shared cultural features such as language, religion, food preferences, and so on: features that are not specified in the genome, but rather handed down in the process of enculturation. To conflate ethnicity, i.e. culture, with biology is to risk repeating the essentialism that supported Social Darwinism, the genocide of Native Americans, the eugenics movement, the Nazi Holocaust...

Franz Boas demonstrated that culture, "race" (by which he meant strictly biological difference), and language are independent variables in his book Race, Language, and Culture, published in... 1940! Boas used ethnographic case studies to show that biologically similar groups of people can have very different languages or cultures, biologically different groups can have similar languages and cultures, and so on, in any combination. A classic modern example of this involves the Warlpiri people of central Australia, who speak a language with noun declensions using suffixes, like Latin, despite being about as biologically distant from the Romans as possible.

Here's another example: a group of schoolchildren I photographed in Pinar Del Río, Cuba, back in 2002. What ethnic group do they all belong to? My guess: Cuban. Which ones have "ethnic skin?" My guess: none, since there is no such thing.

This is why an introduction to general anthropology should be required for every person on the planet.


  1. I don't know about Dr. Gupta, but I think many people are confused by the word 'ethnic" or "ethnicity". I was once told the house I lived in, looked like houses seen in "ethnic neighborhoods". I had no idea,exactly, what this guy meant, other than it probably didn't look "suburban". In other cases, "ethnicity" has to do with what part of Europe some people originally came from(e.g. 'white ethnics", presumably meaning people who came from various parts of Central Europe"). Nowadays, it seems to refer to anybody who doesn't look "lily white". "Race" has sometimes been used the same way. When she was about 2 years old, my daughter and I were at the grocery store buying stuff. Some woman in line kept looking at her and asking "what is she"? I think I replied something like "human", to her persistently silly question. This way of thinking has eventually led to the idea of "dark skinned ethnicity" v. "whites", because saying the "R-word" isn't considered quite so acceptqable. In any case, I think an introduction to basic anthropology is an excellent idea. It might get the nonsense knocked out of them.
    Anne G

  2. What a great find! I'm glad you have your own place, Dr. Kephart.

    One of my favorite classes ever was your Linguisitics. My daughters have grown up talking about what I learned in that class.

    Please tell me where can I find a copy of that wonderful race essay of yours. Did you ever put it into a book? Maybe I can buy it instead of writing you every five years.


    Lois Winkler

  3. Lois, if you send me an email I can reply with some things, maybe. I remember your name, but what year did you take linguistics? It matters because my discussion of "race" has evolved quite a bit in recent years.

  4. Race is another term that need disambiguation. I am proud to claim to be racist -- I am for the human race. There are human races and races human as well as horse races and dog races. There is the race of time and the race of a river to the sea. A human race could be a contest of speed between or among individual human beings. Sanjay Gupta wanted to discuss the skin color as a problem in assumptions about skin cancer. To hell with the parsers who conflict his intent with his attitude. Who do you think will win the human race?


Comments and feedback are welcome, as long as they conform to normal standards of civility and decency. I will delete comments that do not meet these standards.