Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Skin Complexions in Chile

A few years ago there was a study in Chile that consisted on presenting ten images of people with different skin colors and asking people to identify the subjects as Chileans or not. There was a tendency on identifying light skinned subjects as Chileans and darker skinned ones as Mapuches (a Chilean indigenous group), Peruvians, or “foreigners”. This study caught my attention because I perceived this as a wrong image of self-identification. This is because I came from an ethnically mixed family and I still identify myself as Chilean.

In May 2015 the artist Angelica Dass presented the photographic project called “Humanae”, which consisted of taking pictures of various Chileans and identifying their skin color on the Pantone Scale. Her research revealed that 90% of the population was located between the phenotype 3 and 4, which meant that their skin color was translated as “matt” or “light brown”. Her study reveals that most Chileans are of a variety of skin colors. The reason for this mixing of ethnicity is the aftermath of colonization and miscegenation, and the various currents of immigration in the 20th century to Chile. According to a study made by Francisco Lizcano from the UNAM, in 2014 the Chilean population was composed of a genetic contribution of 44.43% Native American/Indigenous, 51.85% European, and 5.44% African. These results are very interesting as they complicate the definition of a Chilean ethnicity and question the tendency of a white self-identification discovered in the first study.

In order to understand the results of the studies, it is important to understand the history of immigration behind this mixed composition of ethnicities. Before Spain colonized Chile, more than sixteen indigenous groups originally inhabited Chile. During the 19th and 20th century mainly Spanish, German, British, French, Italian and Southern Slavs immigrated to Chile. The Chilean government in 1824 enacted a law to encourage Europeans to establish factories in urban centers. Consequently this increased the percentage of European immigrants. However, this law changed after the First World War, but Europeans continued immigrating to Chile. Even Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese arrived in the 1920s. In fact, in 1952 Arabs accounted for more than the 20% of Chile’s foreign-born population. The main question now is: Why do Chileans prefer to identify themselves as white or of light skinned color, if in reality the majority is of darker complexion?

         Being European descendent gives people status within the Chilean society. This mainly comes from the social construction of reality formed during colonization – where white Spaniards had power over the indigenous population. Furthermore, this stayed within society as Europeans immigrated to Chile for economic prosperity in industry and succeeded in acquiring power in Chile’s economy. This perpetuated the socially constructed label that being European descendent equals a higher status in society. Indeed, being of darker skin or indigenous descent gives individuals a stigmatized label and situates them automatically in a lower socioeconomic class. Thus, Chileans prefer to be identified as white European descendent.

This is especially interesting because the majority of the population is not purely white, but a mixture of various skin colors. And still the little percent of “whiteness” has taken over the holistic self-identity of individuals. In other words, Chileans attempt to reframe their ethnical composition and favour the European percentage of their heritage due to the stigmatized label to darker skin although they are a result of miscegenation.

Furthermore, although the first study revealed that Chileans want to be identified of lighter skin, in society there is a difference between being of darker skin complexion and being tanned. They both carry different types of status in society. There is an aspect of beauty and higher socioeconomic status if an individual is tanned. There various labels attached to this, such as money, beach, solarium, tanning products, etc. Therefore, this type of darker skin does not fall under a stigmatized label.

The tendency showed in the first study is a result of a socially constructed, stigmatized label created to people of darker skin, which has its origin and roots in colonization. Taking into account the variety and diversity of ethnicities that take place in Chile, there is no special definition of a Chilean ethnicity. And in my opinion that is the beauty of diversity and understanding. How can we categorize people by their skin colors and ethnicities if we ourselves are of complicated complexions?

Dass, Angélica. "Humanae (work in Progress)." Angélica Dass. Angélica Dass, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2015.
Donoso, Fernando. "Identidad: El ADN Genético De Los Chilenos." Identidad: El ADN Genético De Los Chilenos. Ciencia I+D, 21 Sept. 2011. Web. 05 Dec. 2015.

Doña-Reveco, Cristián, and Amanda Levinson. "Chile: A Growing Destination Country in Search of a Coherent Approach to Migration." Migrationpolicy.org. Migration Policy, 06 June 2012. Web. 05 Dec. 2015.

Fuentes, Macarena et al . Gene geography of Chile: Regional distribution of American, European and African genetic contributions. Rev. méd. Chile,  Santiago ,  v. 142, n. 3, p. 281-289, Mar.  2014. Web 5th   Dec.  2015.

Vera, Teresa, and Melissa Forno. "No Somos Blancuchos Ni Muy Morenos: Como Es El Color De Piel De Los Chilenos." Lun.com. Las Ultimas Noticias, 23 May 2015. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.


  1. This post is explores a interesting and often unnoticed part of ethnicity and race. The few times I went to Spain I noticed a similar trend in being lighter skinned (perceived as white and the "beauty" associated with it) or being tan. This dualistic societal perception of skin tone especially when it comes to the more tan or matt colors. It reminds me of the clique that you want what you can't have, people who are light skinned want to be darker or tan, and people with darker pigment want to be lighter. This a huge generalization but the society reflects this information in a variety of ways, especially in media and social standards of beauty.
    The notion of color blind racism would be interesting in this context because through one perspective everyone lens everyone in this artwork is Chilean but the ideas and connotations with skin tone are obviously very real.

  2. I really identify with this article. The same issue is true in Mexico, which is where my parents were born. I remember my great grand mother greatly favored my mother because she had light skin and my aunt was always resentful because she was darker.
    However, being in a family that is predominately darker can be hard for someone who is lighter skinned. Both my mother and I have been excluded from my family because we are "too good" for them, which is not true at all.
    When I was younger, I would hide from the sun because if I were to get any darker, I would get more ugly. My mom even said this, she said she doesn't like the sun because she doesn't look good tan. Unfortunately, I still have a tendency to avoid the sun and buy foundations that are a shade or two lighter than me.
    The social construction of beauty is so present here. We have been socialized through family and media that light skin is the best skin. I remember watching Disney movies as a child and always seeing lighter skin, which made me think that beauty is associated with light skin. My family also told me that I was "too good" for them for having light skin. This has been drilled into my head for so long, it is hard to let go.


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