Articulating race: Reading skin colour as taxonomy and as numerical data

Document Type


Publication Date



Department of Humanities


Felix von Luschan, a German anthropologist (1854–1924), faced with the ambiguity of verbal skin description, introduced a colour tile system in which each skin shade was given a numerical digit (number) from 1 to 36. von Luschan’s skin colour tiles, which reduced colour to a number, became part of a standard anthropometric toolkit, influencing the field of forensics in the early twentieth century, as practitioners and theorists debated their use to augment the chromatic data gathered by the dominant Bertillon system. This chapter traces the impact of von Luschan’s anthropometric work as well as his biometric skin colour measurement technology to the contemporary dialogues about race in the context of global forensics and security. Further, it investigates the possibility of resisting dominant discourses on race via the articulation of skin colour as biodata.

Publisher's Statement

© The Author(s) 2018. Publisher’s version of record:

Publication Title

Surveillance, Race, Culture