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Egenis · News

Colour Coded



Senior Research Fellow interviewed on Radio 4 programme about race.


Senior Research Fellow Staffan Müller-Wille was part of the Radio 4 programme Colour Coded, broadcast on two consecutive Wednesday evenings.

The two-part programme explored why we tend to define people by their skin colour, and why categories based on skin colour have had (and continue to have) such a profound impact on relations between races. Staffan was interviewed by the programme's presenter, Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, about Linnaeus and the categorisation of race.

Below, Robert Meunier (visiting Egenis from the University of Milan) reviews the programme:

Colour Coded asked why classification systems based on skin colour developed in history and why they still prevail today (writes Robert). To provide a spectrum of possible answers, presenter Trevor Phillips interviewed scholars who are in one way or another concerned with racial classification. The first episode focused on the history of racial classifications and the role of skin colour therein. The second addressed the psychological basis of racial categorization, the genetic underpinning of human differences, and also the maintenance of racial stereotypes in 21st century culture.

The interviews with, among others, Egenis’s Staffan Mueller-Wille, attempted to disentangle the various trajectories of skin colour, taxonomy, social order, historical events, and cultural traditions that intersect in racial classification.

Dr Mueller-Wille`s contributions showed how in antiquity skin colour as a sign of the health status of a person became linked on the one hand to climate and environment and thus to a geographical dimension and on the other hand to the Hippocratic idea of the four humors, that was a lasting paradigm in medicine for centuries. Linnaeus, in his Systema Naturae, sub-divided the species Homo Sapiens in four races according to geographical origin and skin colour. He added moral characters to the classificatory schema, which might, as Mueller-Wille speculated, have been inspired by the link the castas system made with the doctrine of humoral temperaments. The castas system was a classification of social groups on the basis of geographical origin and skin colour, established in the Spanish colonies in America . Its main purpose was to define social positions in terms of rights and duties. The proximity of groups in these societies did result in increasing mixture.In response, ever more fine-grained positions in the classificatory system developed that were thought to correspond to intermediate skin colours and defined intermediate social positions.

What is notable about the way the question is framed in the programme, is that it only addresses skin colour but remains largely committed to the existence of races, as when we read in the on-line information that “White people are really pink or cream, black people are brown, red people are bronze etc.”, or that “mixed race is largest, youngest and fastest growing group” in Britain. While the former sentence implies that there are coherent groups that are wrongly assigned to a rigid colour code, the latter seems to imply that there are definable races that can mix. Some of the interviewees seemed to be more radical in suggesting that, not only skin colour-based classification, but the whole idea of races is a socio-historical construct. Maybe this underlying commitment to races stems from the fact that the story was told from a personal perspective - Phillips started with his own family as an example - and being described by themselves and others as belonging to a race is a fundamental part of people’s identity that can not be ignored. Another reason could be that, although races might not exist, differences between people do and the word “race”, used in a non-essentialist manner, still serves as a short-cut for acknowledging this fact.

The second episode, which turned to the potential psychological and biological underpinnings of racial classification based on skin colour, as seen from the perspective of modern science, was more controversial. It was driven by the question why racial classification based on skin colour does not disappear along with colonialism.

We did not learn much from this programme about the genetic underpinnings of human diversity and how they relate to racial categories. The writer Kenan Malik points out that, despite the fact that races are social divisions imagined as being biological divisions, they still have the power to influence genetic variation, when people mate only within their socially constructed group. Population genetic evidence or debates surrounding new data from genomics on human diversity and its consequences for the race concept were not discussed. Maybe these matters were considered too difficult for a radio show, or simply to be outside of the scope of the programme.


Human expression