All About Race

The word race is ubiquitously known throughout the Western world, particularly the United States. Most people recognize that humans are classified by a social construct that is mistakenly seen as biological (although many people are not aware of this misconception). A good number of people recognize the inequities members of the non-dominant race experience (although we know there are just as many people that deny this proven fact). What I think people may not understand is how we got here. Some argue that the idea of race did not exist in the ancient world (people identified with their particular tribe, kinship group, or even nation). But none of that was specifically what we call “race” today. While it is common for people to group themselves and seek identity from said group, we could consider these ancient classifications as precursors of race, . What sets race apart from other forms of racial and social divisions is its inherent hierarchical nature. White has been the dominant racial group since the inception of race. Being that this is an etymology page, this article seeks to highlight the origin and evolution of race.

The Ancient World

In Before Color Prejudice, Frank Snowden, contend that there was no concept of race in the ancient world. People were classified by their geographical location, and color was only a descriptor. The ancient Greeks held no prejudice based on color, but rather had reverence for Africans such as the Kushites, Ethiopians, Moors, etc.

Among the Greeks and Romans who provided the fullest descriptions of blacks, the Africans’ color was regarded as their most characteristic and unusual feature. In this respect the ancients were not unlike whites of later generations who used color terms as a kind of shorthand to denote Africans and those of African descent. Snowden writes that the Greeks, followed by the Romans, were the first of many peoples to apply to Blacks, or their country, names emphasizing color; this includes Ethiopians (Greek for dark-skinned or “burnt”, Negroes (from the Latin meaning black), blacks, colored peoples, Bilad al Sudan (land of the blacks), and l’Afrique Noire (Black Africa). Further notes on from Snowden include:

Ethiopia literally means “burnt-face;” this is a reflection of the environment theory that attributed the Ethiopians’ color as well as their tightly coiled hair to the intense heat of the southern sun.
  • the ancient Roman poet Marcus Manilius (1st century AD) mentioned the groups who were to be included most frequently in a familiar classical “color scheme”: Ethiopians, the blackest; Indians, less sunburned; Egyptians, mildly dark; and the Marui or Moors, whose name was derived from the color of their skin;
  • Ethiopians were further described by their hue, ranging from fusci (dark) to nigerrimi (very dark); and
  • Garamantes, believed to have lived in the area of the modern Fezzan (modern-Libya), were classified as Ethiopians but distinguished from Ethiopians.

Snowden’s text primarily highlights that Greeks and Romans did not view people of color as less than, but rather venerated them, as made evident through their art. The crux of Snowden’s argument is made on p.94 of his text:

“The careers of Negroes and other dark-skinned peoples in predominantly white societies illustrated another notable aspect of the racial pattern in antiquity: blacks suffered no detrimental distinctions that excluded them from opportunities- occupational, economic, or cultural- available to other newcomers in alien lands.”

While he can’t pinpoint when or how the attitude of the ancient world towards Blacks developed, Snowden denies that “the onus of intense color prejudice [should] be placed upon the shoulders of the ancients. “

  • P.108: don’t know when/how attitude of the ancient world towards black developed. “One point, however, is certain: the onus of intense color prejudice cannot be placed upon the shoulders of the ancients.

This notion is contested by several scholars, including Benjamin Isaac, in The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton, 2004). Here, he argues that the classifications in the Graeco-Roman world were indeed prejudice, and thus would be considered a “prototypes of racism”. Environmental determinism and the heredity of acquired characteristics were two concepts common in antiquity that Isaacs argues are the basis of modern-day racism:

  • Environmental determinism: the idea that climate and geography are responsible for a group’s collective characteristics; the implication here is that features of one’s mind are determined by external causes and not “genetic evolution, social environment, or conscious choice.” Examples include the belief that people from extreme hot and cold climates are brutish, and Egyptians and others with curly hair are cunning and fickle.
  • The Heredity of Acquired Characteristics: this is the belief that parents pass characteristics on to their offspring that derive from external sources. Aristotle wrote about the case of people that elongated their children’s heads and how this became hereditary over generations. And Ethiopians were burnt by the Sun, which based on to their offspring over time.

It is the combination of these two concepts that is especially harmful, as Isaac writes that “[c]limate and geography have definite effects on all people being born in a given region. These effects then become permanent traits because they become hereditary in one or two generations. The result of this combination is a powerful incentive to discriminatory attitudes.”

Isaac’s work is especially important because he highlights notions that were prevalent in the inception of race. But what is race exactly?

The Origins of Race

The concept of race as we know it today originated during the rise of science. In the sixteenth century, many scholars began to question the theological explanations, which led to science being a key aspect of Western society. However, the natural and supernatural world remained intertwined, and certain theological assumptions survived. For example, the idea that Noah’s sons were ancestors to three lines of descent: Shem was the father of the Semites, Japheth the father of the Christian Europeans, and Ham the founder of the Cushites/Canaanites (i.e. the darker tribes).

Classification of living things was in vogue during the early stages of scientific development. Various scholars developed taxonomic systems for flora, fauna, and animals; eventually, these efforts expanded to people.

  • In the late 1700s, Jean Bodin classified people descriptively, with terms such as “duskish color,” “black,” “chestnut,” and “farish and white.”
  • In 1684, Francois Bernier proposed four classifications based on skin color, hair, form, and “general appearance”- Europeans, Far Easterns, Negroes, and Lapps.

Most science historians consider Carl Linnaeus to be the father of the modern human classification system. Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist that created the binomial nomenclature system to classify plants and animals; in the 18th century, he classified and described human as follows:

  • Americanus: reddish, choleric, and erect with black, straight hair, thick nostrils; they are said to be obstinate, merry, and regulated by customs
  • Asiaticus: sallow, melancholy, and stiff with black hair and dark eyes; said to be severe, haughty, avaricious, and ruled by opinions
  • Africanus: black, phlegmatic, and relaxed with black frizzled hair and silky skin; said to be crafty, indolent, negligent, and governed by caprice
  • Europeanus: white, sanguine, and muscular with long, flowing hair; said to be gentle, acute, inventive, and governed by laws

As you can see, Linnaeus’ system resembles that of the ancient world in which people are are assigned characteristics based on their geographical location. This classification continues today and the descriptions are the basis of stereotypes that are still prevalent in the Western world.

By the late eighteenth century, the idea of race began to crystallize and formed the basis for the ideas of slavery and imperialism. Linnaeus’ ideas easily lend themselves to a hierarchical structure, which was used to justify force servitude and the theft of indigenous land. Notions of liberty, just and the natural rights of man began to take root during the Age of Enlightenment; however, to justify enslaving Africans, Blacks were deemed a separate and inferior race. This satisfied the cognitive dissonance that “liberal” thinking slave owners like Thomas Jefferson experienced. And thus, modern-day race is born.

The term race first appeared in the Middle Ages and is found in all the Romance languages to mean the breeding line of animals or a stock of animals that was the product of a line bred for certain purposes. The English most likely adopted the word from the Spanish word reazza in the fifteenth century, during the time of Spanish hegemony in Europe. During the sixteenth century, race started to refer to the classification system similar to “nation” or “type,” but by the end of the 1800s, it became the dominant mode of human differentiation.

With racism underway, the term racist emerges; racist is an adjective, describing anything that propagates the notion that one racial group is inferior to another. As history has it,

Racist is also a noun (person), meaning a person that is racist.

Racism is the belief that whites are superior to non-white races, resulting in prejudice and antagonism directed towards people of color

It’s funny how changing the final letter of each of these words…one tiny little letter can change the function and the connotation of the world. Racism is an idea, as the suffix -ism meaning “belief or ideology,” while racist is a person, like specialist and minimalist. An idea is easier to disassociate with; like, that is racism. It’s easier for a person to digest that they perpetuate racism rather that they are a racist. It’s almost like people think the final letter is a seed that when planted, produces a tree. The racism tree may have sparse leaves, but is still fruitful and thus useful. But the racist tree yields nothing but wind, as its skeletal frame is void of life.

News flash…if a person, a policy, or idea purports that people of a particular race are smarter/prettier/wiser/more civilized/more industrious than another, that is racism. And those people, policies, and ideas are racist.

To counter this, that person should become an antiracist. Someone that stands against racism. Three morphemes: anti, race, and -ist. In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi states that the only way to counter racism is acting against it. Instead of racializing behaviors, we are to remove the idea that a race acts or thinks in a certain manner. This is because race is not biological but rather a social structure crystallized to justify the inferiority of all non-white people.

The true question is this- if at its root, race serves to classify non-Europeans/white people as inferior, can Black people ever truly achieve racial equality in a Western society?



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