A brief history of race

Long before people started to think of race along the lines of biology, genetics or phenotype i.e. physical appearance, it was largely considered to be a category of kinship or group affiliation, like speakers of a common language.

In the 16th century, “race” wasn’t even attributed to physical traits or behaviour. It meant that you were all members of a common household or group, or that you shared a common ancestry, or spoke of a common language.

There was a shift in the idea of race in the 17th and 18th century because of the rise in capitalism (that was backed by colonialism and slavery), and a period of theorisations that was taking shape in Europe often referred to as the “Period of Enlightenment”.

To start with, a pseudo-science of race emerged that connected physical features, behaviour and legal rights – particularly between white people and black people – as a means to justify slavery. Anthropologist Audrey Smedley notes that “scientific ideas about physical appearance and racial difference in the 18th century were, largely, “folk” ideas used to justify existing social norms.

These coincided with the period of enlightenment which was primarily a period when European thought and ideological development led to the emergence of some key concepts such as the categorisation of the natural world using hierarchical systems that emphasised the similarities between species and subgroups, and the inherent differences against others. Race, unfortunately, was fitted into this same mould.

In essence, physical markers and characteristics that were already established norms through enslavement became ways to prove that this was a natural order of things, rather than a social construction. These assumptions were then coded into law.

It is worth noting that even at this time, white did not have anything to do with skin tone. It meant of European descent. In his book, Whiteness of a different colour: European immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, historian Matthew Jacobson notes that in the US “white” or “caucasian” was not always considered a unified race composed of anyone of European descent.

Whiteness was often considered exclusive to Anglo-Saxon descendants while other European groups were broken into different racial categories such as “Celt”, “Slavs”, “Iberics” and “Hebrews” which were considered separate races. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that these groups were subsumed into “white” to shore up a cultural majority against other races.

Modern scholarship universally regards race as a social construct, an identity which is assigned to individuals and groups based solely on rules made by society. There are, however, still a diminishing number of scientists that believe there is a correlation between physical racial characteristics and things like intelligence and morality.



Further reading

The history of the idea of race and why it matters