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Study Quantifies the Shades of Social Acceptance

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2001
Brent D. Johnson, Senior News Editor

The subject of skin color is no less politically volatile than it was five decades ago during the height of the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, the social taboos against discussing color and its consequences have silenced legitimate debate that could have opened new avenues to cultural understanding.

Irene Lopez, a doctoral candidate at Kent State University, is working to put aside those social conventions by investigating how phenotype influences the way an ethnic group treats its members.

Her investigation was prompted by a study that showed that, in urban settings, dark-skinned Mexican-Americans make less money than lighter-skinned Mexican-Americans.

Lopez said there has been no easy way to measure phenotype. Typically, researchers would ask the test subjects to rate themselves on a scale of one to 10, and then an examiner would make a determination.

"Subjectivity is OK, but it wasn't a solid way of measuring skin color," she said. She wanted to bring some scientific rigor to the process of determining skin color.

With a grant from Indianapolis-based Photovolt Instruments Inc., Lopez used a color- and reflectance- measurement device called the Color Guide to measure the percentage of light that reflects from the skin, with the amount of red being proportional to the melanin in the skin.

The Color Guide has better sensitivity than its forerunners and can plot CIE Lab color coordinate equations for easy quantification of the results. For example, "a" is the amount of red and green, and "b" is the amount of blue and yellow. The more positive the reading in the "b" coordinate, the more yellow is present in the sample.

She interviewed 75 Puerto Rican women, ranging in age from 18 to 45, to determine how skin color had affected their social acceptance and community standing. She selected the Puerto Rican community for its white, Native American and black racial components.

Lopez made three assessments of each subject. She measured the amount of light reflected from the anterior surface of the forearm at the junction of the humerus and radius, an established reference point in anthropological research. She will release the conclusions of her research in about six months. Her technique has earned her a fellowship from Kent State University.

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