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Skin We Are In: Dr. Sindiwe Magona and Nina Jablonski’s Book Explains The Science of Skin Colour to Children

Skin We Are In: Children’s Book Explores The Science Of Skin Colour 

What can someone's skin colour really tell us about them?  The University of the Western Cape’s Writer in Residence, Dr. Sindiwe Magona, American anthropologist Nina Jablonski and award-winning illustrator Lynn Fellman explore that in their new children’s book, Skin We Are In, a children's book about the science behind skin colour.

The story follows Njabulo, Aisha, Tim, Chris and Roshni as they discover why humans have different skins, and how people's thinking about skin colour has changed throughout history. The book is aimed at children between the ages of eight and 12 and will be printed in all 11 official languages.

“We’d like this book to help change the conversation around some difficult topics…to get children to think about something that is beautiful, natural and badly misunderstood,” Dr. Magona says, hopeful. ”They can grow with wholesome and healthy attitudes about skin colour.”

Skin We Are In is a celebration of the glorious human rainbow, and expresses the hope for the present crop of South African children that they will be saved or cured from the burden of skin colour.  That they, unlike previous generations, will have some doubt about the social context of inferiority and superiority.

Starting the book was a challenging process - even for a celebrated author like Sindiwe,  with over 100 children’s books, stage plays, and books of short stories to her name, and who helps other authors attain their potential with the UWC CREATES programme.

“At first, I was unsure about my collaboration with Nina, because of how different our fields are,” Dr. Magona notes. “And then deciding where exactly to begin was a challenge as well.”

Luckily, inspiration struck when she saw a chameleon in her garden change colour, and her instant thought was that this was how the book would begin.

“A child would also be looking at a chameleon and he will wonder out loud - about why people could not change colour like them,” she says excitedly.

Looking back, she believes that her encounter with the chameleon was a gift from above - and  on her collaboration with Nina, she described it as nothing but a pleasant experience.

“I felt flattered that I had been asked to collaborate with her,” she shares.

She reckons that the book is vital for the children of South Africa because of the great emphasis on skin colour in the country - and not just during apartheid.

“The book will begin to make us uncomfortable enough to know that we have a job to do,” says Dr. Magona. “Everybody in South Africa if you grew up here, has been touched by apartheid, and for healing to happen we need to come together and read books such as these.”

But in fact, the skin we are in is only 0,001% (1000th of a percent), the history of where humans come from and the research behind skin colour.

“We make laws about skin colour,  judge people and reject them - all based on that fraction of a percent,” she says, astonished.

Nina emphasizes that the different traits we have come from our genes and are shaped by evolution, that skin colour is also influenced by the environment and the sun.  

“Skin colour is associated with the intensity of the sun,” says Jablonski. “it does not determine who we are, or what abilities we have.”

Seeing the Whole Rainbow (Nation)

Sindiwe encourages people to not set out to disprove those who judge them based on skin and race, but instead to live one’s life to the fullest in who they are and how they look like.

She believes South Africa’s history has played a huge role in the dynamics of skin colour which is enforced more by ordinary people such as the famous saying ‘children don’t see colour’. She jokingly asks, “Are those blind children?”

Instead of children being told not to see colour, they need to be taught to embrace it - to understand that people look different and there is nothing wrong with that. One’s colour does not add or take away anything from who they are.

So why make Skin We AreIn a children’s book?

“Children are born with the innate ability to want to live, learn and adapt,” Sindiwe says. “If anyone can learn to look beyond small differences, to appreciate variety and value people for who they really are, it’s them.”

The book launch event on 7 March 2018 had a question and answer session where primary school kids from Delft and Belhar got to interrogate the authors on a range of topics - including the title.  

“The title just illustrates and embraces the variety of skin colours we deal with on a daily basis - embracing brown, black and white skin colours, just part of the human rainbow.”