An Artist Finds True Skin Colors in a Diverse Palette

To create a color wheel of humanity, Angélica Dass paired 4,000 portraits with Pantone cards.

This story is part of The Race Issue, a special issue of National Geographic that explores how race defines, separates, and unites us.

When people saw the brown skin of Brazilian Angélica Dass and the pink tones of her Spanish husband, they would theorize about the color of their future children. For clues, Dass looked at her family, whose European and African skin tones range from “pancakes to peanuts to chocolate.”

In 2012 she photographed herself, her then husband, and their families to show this medley. She’d match a strip of pixels from their noses to a color card from Pantone, the longtime authority on color standards. So began “Humanae,” a project that has collected 4,000 portraits and myriad human colors in 18 countries.

Skin color still determines treatment in the 21st century. “This dehumanization of human beings is happening now,” Dass says. “On the border of Libya and in our everyday lives, when someone cannot have the same freedom as you, it’s because you’re treating them as if they are a little less human.”

Dass blames what she calls our “binary” color palette. When she was six, her teacher told her to use the “skin tone” crayon: “I looked at that pink and thought, How can I tell her this is not my skin color?” That night, she prayed to wake up white.

Later, as a design and fashion student, Dass learned to see thousands of hues within each color. She tells students this when she brings her project to schools, but most already know. “Kids don’t describe themselves as black and white—we teach them black and white,” Dass says. It was kids, she says, who coined color names like peanuts and chocolate that she now uses for her own family.

Creating “Humanae” has taken her from Tennessee, where a former white supremacist cried in her arms, to Switzerland, where elders met with the refugees they opposed resettling. “The places you don’t expect to find the empathy can be where a small seed can start to grow,” she says. “And maybe it can be the seed to transform our future as human beings.”