Describing Human Colouring

There is, to my knowledge, no formal and internationally recognised system by which we classify and identify human colouring.

Les Origines De La Beaute -        ©Natalia Ivanova

Considering this, the classification of human colour remains in a great state of ambiguity and leaves such an important subject open to outdated designation, personal interpretation and ignorant judgements.

People and institutions use the term ‘colour’ as a generic term, to describe the lightness to darkness of a person’s skin. This is theoretically wrong and does not make scientific sense.  

Colour is made up of three elements: value (lightness to darkness); hue (distinguishable colour); and chroma (purity of colour).

Human tone scale

colorDNA uses the word tone to describe the lightness to darkness of human skin colour.

The term colour in the colorDNA system describes the three colour elements as qualities – the underlying pigmentation hue, the tone and the skin’s variable saturation (chroma).

Using colour or coloured to describe a person, or group of people, with a certain level of skin tone – such as ‘person of colour/color’ – is not right – contrary to what the Oxford Dictionary says, is now the preferred way of talking about people who are not white.

It’s an outdated racial term, when applied to human colour – whichever way it’s put.

The term is ambiguous, who does it include?

  • People whose skin is darker than a certain tone, if so which tone?
  • Particular races of people?
  • Particular mixed-race people?
  • People in countries through the Middle East and Asia?
  • Indigenous people such as Mãori's, American Indian's and Inuit's?
  • People in Southern Europe, Central and South America who have a medium skin tone?

It’s so wrong! It’s time we call it out – ‘All humans are people of colour, just different colours’.

Using colour or coloured to describe the whole human race is correct, but using colour to describe lightness to darkness of human skin tone is not.

There is more reason to call a person with orange coloured hair ‘coloured’ than a person with medium skin tone

In an article by Nina G. Jablonski and George Chaplin titled The colours of humanity: the evolution of pigmentation in the human lineage (published by the Royal Society, 22 May 2017), the words ‘colour’ and ‘colouration’ are used to describe humans’ tone.

If the words 'colour' or 'colouration' are replaced by the word 'tone' when referring to the level of human skin lightness to darkness, it would sound, feel and be technically correct (refer to the words in red below).

For example, the article's Abstract states: Because specific skin colour phenotypes can be created by different combinations of skin colour-associated genetic markers, loss of genetic variability due to genetic drift appears to have had negligible effects on the highly redundant genetic 'palette' for the skin colour.

In section 3 of the same article, Variation in human skin coloration is mostly a product of natural selection, it notes: Sexual selection does not appear to have been a major influence on the evolution of human skin coloration, but it probably did increase the degree of sexual dimorphism in skin colour in some populations.

Wikipedia also uses incorrect terminology to describe different human skin tones. See the highlighted words in the caption under the photograph which are from a Wikipedia article on Human skin color.

Extended coloured (Afrikaans: Kleurlinge or Bruinmense) family from South Africa showing some spectrum of human skin coloration

Describing people as black or white

The terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ are based on ideas, not facts, given black and white are not colours and all humans have colour. 

©Banji Bagwana

These terms to describe humans came into use in the late 17th century, as a means to divide people, not to scientifically identify different coloured humans. (The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea - Robert P Baird, The Guardian, 20 April 2021)

When people say, ‘She is white’, we know this term is not scientifically correct.

So why do we continue to call people black or white?

There are many reasons, and it’s a fascinating, complicated and emotional subject.

These terms are now part of our language, an integral element of some cultures and societies.

I feel strongly about describing an individual by their true colouring, their unique colour expression, because it’s right and we now have the scientific classifications to do so.

We use them as nouns and adjectives to describe or name a person’s race, their skin tone or heritage, and they are used by people to identify with, or belong to, a particular group of people.

I feel awkward when using the terms black and white to describe human colouring, or being in a conversation when they are used.

I feel awkward because I am a realist and prefer to describe human colouring as it actually is.

Also, I often hear and feel an association with human division and racism.

That awkward feeling also comes from not growing up in a society where the term is used regularly to describe my community, peers and myself.

I feel strongly about describing an individual by their true colouring, their unique colour expression, because it’s right and we now have the scientific classifications to do so.

Business, institutions, government, education, media, science (BIGEMS), and anyone else in a position of authority, should be describing human colouring as the actual colour it is. 

It’s hard to believe we are in the twenty first century and still don’t know how to properly describe our own colouring.

Surely National Geographic can do better than asking if Queen Charlotte was black, when she was clearly not.

Screen shot from a National Geographic article, published on the 13th of May 2023. Queen Charlotte looks as black as she looks green

If people would like to identify themselves as black, white or green, that’s their choice; however, if we have a scientific alternative, at least people can make informed decisions and the BIGEMS can set examples of how to describe human colouring.

Do we need to change or replace the words black or white to describe groups of people?

These terms are used in so many different ways, and are now embedded in human language, culture and the community. It will be difficult, maybe impossible and probably not necessary, to change, and some people wouldn’t want change.

If we want to describe a group or race of people with similar colour characteristics, we can do this with scientific terms.

We should also distinguish between ancestry and human colour (although they can be combined) when describing a group of people. 

The largest image consulting association in the world, the Association of Image Consultants International (AICI), which is meant to be the expert and leader in human colour classification, thinks describing a group of their members as black is ok.

Its celebration of African American Month is a wonderful recognition of member achievement. It has chosen to use the title ‘Black History Month’ along with the Pan-African flag symbol. It looks like the celebration of these luminaries is the identification of ancestry and the word ‘black’ is being used as the adjective to describe the group.

Maybe I’m wrong and each person in this group identifies with being called black, however it’s not right from a human colouring or image perspective.

The colorDNA human tone scale has black and white outside of the scientific human colour classification.  

Currently there is no range of light-coloured skin tones which is classified as white, and we don’t know at what tone level white skin stops being white and becomes a medium tone.

In fact, medium skin tone isn’t really a thing. We rarely use the word ‘medium’ to describe human skin tone and it’s certainly not a cultural language description like black or white.

 We can only guess at what point medium skin tone becomes black and what range of dark-coloured skin tones would be classified as black.

The terms light and dark are scientifically correct and make more sense, and they also allow the term medium to be added.

Making change

Describing human colour needs a universally accepted system of analysis and classification.

A sophisticated and scientifically correct set of terms needs to be formally endorsed and acknowledged by the BIGEMS and people of authority, who work and live in environments where these terms are part of the everyday language – akin to industry terms.

The lack of clarification on the subject of human colour has been overlooked for too long, it is detrimental to the progression of the human race and an egalitarian world.

Civilisation is now more inclusive, showing a commitment to diversity across all areas of life, now is the time to get the language around human colouring right.

For over 15 years I have been writing and researching a human colour system.  

The colorDNA system is able to scientifically identify and describe the beautiful range of mankind’s colours.

Humanity needs a human colouring system and people need a personal ‘colour expression’.

Over the next 15 weeks colorDNA will publish how the system was created and how it works.

We look forward to formal scrutiny, constructive criticism and recognition for a system that will benefit all.

Leave A Comment

First Name
Last Name
This is some text inside of a div block.
Thank you! Your comment has been received. It will be reviewed and posted, if it meets our policy.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.