Race is a Myth. A History.
Updated: May 29, 2021
500 years ago, race wasn’t even a thing. In the 19th and early 20th century it became a popular science but that soon came to an abrupt end after the second world war, when race and eugenics was used to justify the genocide of millions of Jews in Nazi Germany. UNESCO, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, was set up in 1945 to create world peace and in 1951 wrote a revised statement that homo sapiens are one species:
“There is no evidence for the existence of so-called "pure races" and no scientific justification exists for discouraging reproduction between persons of different races.”
Now though, especially since the rise of nationalism, race seems to be everywhere and, with it, comes its misconceptions. With the explosion of the internet, those with ignorant views can espouse and circulate them openly on social media. I have written about the history of race before but in this article I hope to share some of the arbitrary constructs through time. I want to highlight just how flimsy, and unscientific these were, and shine a light on how any current theories are still just as unsubstantiated.
10,000+ years ago
If we start at the beginning, as Bonnie Greer does in her In Search of Black History audiobook series,
"Back then, at least 300,000 years ago, the diversity of our early human ancestors was so enormous that it makes the differences between our fellow human beings today seem so trivial."
And when discussing our European descendants, she talks about a skeleton that was discovered in Cheddar Gorge over a century ago “The man whose face shows us exactly how limited, how fixed in our own time, our ideas of race are, is known to us as Cheddar Man.” Discovered in 1903, archaeologists uncovered the oldest full skeleton found in England, that was 10,000 years old. With modern DNA analysis, it has been uncovered that Cheddar Man may have had ice blue eyes and black skin and was an ancestor of many people from the Northern Hemisphere. Dr Tom Booth who worked on the case says that the DNA came back as Cheddar Man having "dark or dark to black skin", and “lighter coloured eyes, which could be hazel to blue-green eyes.” This combination lies outside our understanding of genetic variation today. It flies in the face of anyone who thinks that ideas of race are permanently fixed. Also, fascinatingly, importantly, to those who think whiteness is a “pure-breed”, this discovery dispels that myth.
So where and when did these constructs occur? And when did people become fixated on categorising people?
First up, the word “race” interpreted to mean an identifiable group of people who share a common descent, was introduced into English in about 1580. Even then it wasn’t really used in the way we use it now. Instead, in the sixteenth century, it referred to a group of people from common stock, like a family, a tribe.(1) According to Ibram X. Kendi, it wasn't until 1581 when French poet Jacques De Brazer used it in a poem about hunting. (7)
After extensive research, Kendi concludes that:
"The first global power to construct race happened to be the first racist power and the first exclusive slave trader of the constructed race of African people. The individual who orchestrated this trading of an invented people was nicknamed The Navigator though he did not lead Portugal in the fifteenth century. The only thing he navigated was Europe's political economic seas in order to create the first transatlantic slave trading policies... Prince Henry The Navigator, the brother and an uncle of Portuguese kings, is the first character in the history of racist power. Until his death in 1460 Prince Henry sponsored Atlantic voyages to West Africa by the Portuguese."
These ships bought enslaved Africans back to Portugal. It is argued by Kendi that his biographer and nephew, Gomes Eanes de Zurara, was actually the first race maker and crafter of racist ideas. Although he didn’t use the word ‘race’, he chronicled, in 1453, Prince Henry's first slave auction in 1444. According to Zurara, some captives were white enough and well proportioned, while others were black enough that they looked like Ethiops and “So ugly”. Although the diverse range of Africans had different skin colours, languages and ethnic groups, Zurara blended them all into one group worthy of enslavement. He created hierarchy. Racism then became justified.
I did find an example soon after this when assumptions were made about a group of people who were discriminated against. In fear of gypsies, Henry VIII passed the Egyptian Act in 1531, “whose very title expressed how misconstrued its statutes were.” (2) In his quite superb book, The Book of Trespass, Nick Hayes points out that:
“Unlike the native vagabonds of the past centuries, the Roma people did not need to be branded with letters that marked their depravity–the colour of their skin was enough.”
Again, race still wasn’t a term that was explicitly used, but clearly the categorising and labelling of different people was well underway.
Indeed, in the late sixteenth century, French philosopher, Jean Bodin, attempted a rudimentary geographic arrangement of known human populations based on skin colour. Bodin's colour classifications were purely descriptive, including neutral terms such as "duskish colour, like roasted quinze", "black", "chestnut", and "farish white".
Another excellent quote from The Book of Trespass describes how the classification of races and the law controlling different people really started to take hold:
“In 1661 the Act of Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes was passed, the first of several attempts to drive a partition between the white and black workers. By banning miscegenation (sex between races) and giving the white workers privileges, it created an imbalance between the white servants and black slaves and linked the white underclass with their white superiors; it gave race a salience it never had before.”
“It was the start of a new era of slavery, one that veered from the economic principle of exploited labour to the quasi-scientific concocted hierarchy of race. The British had just legalised white supremacy.”
In 1684, François Bernier, a French physician and traveller, published a brief essay dividing humanity into what he called "races", distinguishing individuals, and particularly women, by skin colour and a few other physical traits. He split races up into four categories. The fourth of these was ‘The Lappons’ who he said were “A small and short race with thick legs, wide shoulders, a short neck, and a face that I don't know how to describe, except that it's long, truly awful and seems reminiscent of a bear's face. I've only ever seen them twice in Danzig, but according to the portraits I've seen and from what I've heard from a number of people they're ugly animals".
This may well have been the very first system to try to categorise all of humanity and was a significant stimulant for the emergence and sustainability of scientific racism.(6)
A little later, German and English scientists, Bernhard Varen (1622–1650) and John Ray (1627–1705) also classified human populations into categories according to stature, shape, food habits, and skin colour, along with any other distinguishing characteristics. (3)
The eighteenth century came the work of one of the most potent, pivotal figures in the development of genetics. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus laid out the categories of classifying species to this day. He also, rather crudely, listed four flavours of human, respectively corresponding to the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, and each easy to spot by their colours: red, white, yellow and black. (2)
Later on in the 18th century, scientists began to include behavioural or psychological traits in their reported observations—which traits often had derogatory or demeaning implications—and researchers often assumed that those traits were related to their race, and therefore, innate and unchangeable.(4) Under the justification of science, the were able to create stronger divisions and breed more and more fear, suspicion and alienation. And, being that each of these scientists were white and European, each new constructed hierarchy or categorisation, which put white people as superior, more seeds of white supremacy and institutional racism were being sown. I could continue the metaphor of how we are now seeing the fruits of these trees and how, if only people could see the roots of these trees, we would stay well clear of them. But I think I could work that into another article on environmental racism. Must make a note of that...
In 1795, in the third edition of On the Natural Varieties of Mankind, German doctor Johann Friedrich Blumenbach described five human types: Caucasians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans and Malays, elevating Caucasians–his own race–to the status of most beautiful of them all. (4) Of course he would say that, being white and all. Reading up a little bit more on Blumenbach, it appears that he didn’t cast judgment over the abilities or intelligences of other people so perhaps his labelling wasn’t quite as pernicious . Even so, his vague human taxonomy was a practice that began to rear its ugly head with increased frequency.
Among the 19th century naturalists who defined the field were Georges Cuvier, James Cowles Pritchard, Louis Agassiz, Charles Pickering (Races of Man and Their Geographical Distribution, 1848). Cuvier enumerated three races, Pritchard seven, Agassiz twelve, and Pickering eleven. As you can see, it all became rather arbitrary.
With now a centuries of categorising people, came what now seems to be the inevitable conclusions. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, despite the supposed abolition of slavery, we can see a dangerous shift towards cruder generalisations. As Superior puts it, Race science became a pastime for non-scientists, too. French aristocrat and writer Count Arthur de Gobineau, in An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, published in 1853, proposed that there were three races, with what he saw as an obvious hierarchy between them:
‘The negroid variety is the lowest, and stands at the foot of the ladder … His intellect will always move within a very narrow circle.’ Pointing to the ‘triangular’ face shape of the ‘yellow race’, he explained that this was the opposite of the negroid variety. ‘The yellow man has little physical energy, and is inclined to apathy … He tends to mediocrity in everything.’
‘Neither could be a match for Gobineau’s own race. Reaching his predictable pinnacle, Gobineau added, ‘We come now to the white peoples. These are gifted with reflective energy, or rather with an energetic intelligence. They have a feeling for utility, but in a sense far wider and higher, more courageous and ideal, than the yellow races.’
This labelling was happening across the westernised world by now. In 1869 the Australian government passed legislation allowing children to be forcibly taken away from their parents, particularly if they were of mixed heritage–described at the time as ‘half-caste’, ‘quarter-caste’ and smaller fractions. (1)
Soon afterwards The USA would also draw up their own legislation, designed to remove one particular race from the country. In 1882 they instigated the Chinese Exclusion Act, the country’s first major law restricting immigrants.
In 1904-1908, we see how the previous four centuries of hierarchy culminated in the first genocide of the 21st century. In 1908, Eugen Fischer, a German physician, designed a matchbox and in it were 30 different hair types, presenting a variety of different hair styles categorised by texture and colour. This innocuous looking thing was used to decide the fate of Namibians. Those with certain hair lived or died. Fischer took it to Namibia in 1908 to establish the relative whiteness of mixed race people and those who didn’t make the cut were murdered. Fisher went on to teach medicine to Nazi physicians, who adopted his medical procedures and experiments in the Holocaust. (5)
By looking back at the centuries beforehand, we can almost see how it occurred. How unchallenged, Euro-centred views, became fuel for racialisation and how this enabled the powerful to have control. We see it today but it sometimes lacks the open visibility that was so brazen in the centuries past.
What I think is interesting is how the lines that have been drawn up over the last half a millennium have constantly been redrawn to suit the suppressors. At the beginning of Superior, there is a great passage which explains how we white people, actually, weren’t always the ‘Superior’ ones:
‘...As the relief shows, the Egyptians at that time believed themselves to be a superior people with the most advanced culture, imposing order on chaos.'
And yet, soon afterwards,
'Kushites, inhabitants of an ancient Nubian kingdom located in present-day Sudan, invaded Egypt. There was a new winner now, and the Ram Sphinx protecting King Taharqo–the black king of Egypt–illustrates how this conquering force took Egyptian culture and appropriated it. The Kushites built their own pyramids, the same way that the British would later replicate classical Greek architecture.'
This was all about 2700 years ago. The idea of being the conquerors, or the best, is far older than some people think. Really, those people who regard themselves as superior do so because they fail to see themselves against the backdrop of geological time. We are but a pinprick in history and, if we compare ourselves to the grandeur of the universe, the self-aggrandising egos of everyone from eugenicists to nationalists, pale into insignificance. Perhaps their assertions and biases could do with a dose of humility. As this chapter goes onto say:
'Knowledge is not just an honest account of what we know, but has to be seen as something manipulated by those who happen to hold power when it is written.'
What do we know now?
In 1972, geneticist Richard Lewontin, who later became a professor at Harvard University, began dividing the planet up into seven human groups, based roughly on old-fashioned racial categories. He investigated just how much genetic diversity there was within each population, compared with the genetic diversity between them. What he found was that there was far more variation among people of the same ‘race’ than between the supposed races. In total, around 90 per cent of the variation lies roughly within the old racial categories, not between them. (1)
In a more recent development, as Angela Saini in her aforementioned book, Superior, “An influential 2002 study published in Science by a team of American scientists, led by geneticist Noah Rosenberg, then at the University of Southern California, took genetic data from just over a thousand people around the world and showed that as much as 95 per cent of variation sits within the major population groups...
Statistically this means that, although I look nothing like the white British woman who lives next door to me in my apartment building, it’s perfectly possible for me to have more in common genetically with her than with my Indian-born neighbour who lives downstairs.”
Indeed, after discussing various criteria used in biology to define subspecies or races, Alan R. Templeton concludes in 2016: "[T]he answer to the question whether races exist in humans is clear and unambiguous: no."
As The Good Immigrant puts it, after detailing the huge variety of peoples with darker skin, and after comparing the size of Africa to a conglomeration of many large countries,
“It is insulting, reductive, counter-productive, lazy, disingenuous and deeply, deeply, deeply, problematic to attach a single label - one of Western invention as shield against racism, one as porous a description of skin pigmentation, as ‘black’ - to a group of people so vastly varied and numerous.”
Not for the first time, I could conclude this post by pointing out that, put simply, we shouldn’t look to so quickly identify and categorise people.
So we are more alike to all other humans, genetically, than you may think. Our European ‘white’ ancestors did not look ‘white’ like us. And race has been defined and redefined so many times because it doesn’t exist. Finally though, if I were to try to reduce everything I have learned about the history of race and if I had to communicate one thing, I would use this quote from Superior:
‘The word race is itself racist,’ Montagu wrote in his influential 1942 book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. Both intellectually and culturally ahead of the curve, he explained in American Anthropologist, ‘What a “race” is, no one exactly seems to know, but everyone is most anxious to tell … The common definition … is based upon an arbitrary and superficial selection of external characters.’
Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes
Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999.
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla
Bones do not Lie audiobook with Bonnie Greer