Melanin Matters: Skin tone politics in Nigeria and beyond

Subproject A01 of the Collaborative Research Centre 1482 “Studies in Human Categorization” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG)

As the visible surface of the human body, the skin is subject to cultural ascriptions and manipulations. The project Melanin Matters studies how members of society differentiate among each other by drawing on cultural notions of skin tone. It takes into consideration that meanings ascribed to skin tone may exceed ‘racial’ perceptions and seeks to understand how and when skin tone becomes a marker of ethnicity, caste, class, gender, attractiveness, health, or disability.
Melanin Matters examines two cases of human categorization that are based on relatively light skin tones. The first case focuses on people with albinism whose congenital condition results in hypopigmentation. The second case explores practices of artificial skin lightening. While dominant medical and ‘racial’ discourses frame both phenomena as deviances from the norm, everyday interpretations vary: Individuals with albinism frequently experience stigmatization, while those with naturally light or artificially lightened skin embody a certain beauty ideal.
The project asks how skin tones are represented and negotiated, how and when skin tone is made meaningful, and which values are attached to it. Ethnographic fieldwork is conducted in Nigeria, Germany,  and online on social media. These contexts are characterized by varying cutaneous minority-majority relations and varying degrees of mediatization. The project aims at contributing to a broader theorization and ‘post-racial’ conceptualization of skin tone as a flexible marker that potentially gains traction for various forms of human-made differentiations.