You may have heard people say that “Race is a social construct,” similiar to language, national boundaries, or Hogwarts’ Houses, and much like Hufflepuff, the concept is one mired in identity, economics, and power. Understanding the history of the labels that we wear and assign is about understanding the history of shifting social classes, politics, oppression, and even slavery. Make no mistake -in the end- race is and always has been a social construct, but it is one of the biggest and most heavily reinforced collective ideas in the history of humanity.
A Slave to History
Slavery was not a new concept in the world by the time Europeans settled on the American continents. Ancient Romans, Greeks, Sumerians, Egyptians, and others had kept slaves for centuries and passed their tradition onto the cultures that followed. However, slaves in these times were not delineated based upon the color of one’s skin. Instead, being a slave often meant that you were a prisoner of war, captured by pirates, or just in any circumstance where you were not recognized as a “citizen of the nation.” In fact, wealthy Romans often kept Greek slaves as highly sought-after tutors and house servants, because in antiquity slaves were also valued for their intellectual abilities as well as their physical attributes.
At the time, slavery also existed in similiar forms for the native populations on some Pacific Islands, Africa, the Americas, but especially white Northern Europeans. Warring tribes would often take prisoners from their defeated neighbors and force them into varying degrees of servitude. The word “Slave,” even comes from the word “Slav,” because during the Middle Ages -when the English language was taking its modern form- some of the most common slaves were prisoners from the Slavonic tribes captured by the Germans. They were often sold to Arabs, meaning that it would not have been uncommon for Middle Easterners to have white slaves. The French Crown even enslaved its own people, filling their war-galleys with French Protestant rebels who were forced to row the mighty ships into battle. However, all that changed with the introduction of colonialism.
By the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Portugal had begun to open up trade with the nations of Sub-Sahara Africa. Initially, Europeans were more interested in African ivory, diamonds, and other riches, but also purchased the African prisoners that were captured during wars between African nations. Thus, when the Portuguese began building the colonies of São Tomé and Principe and setting up Caribbean sugar plantations it was the African slaves they relied on to do the bulk of the work. The Native Americans populations often died of illness or were able to escape and disappear, knowing the land and the local tribes. African slaves were ideal as they were immune to European disease and were strangers in the New World. This led to an influx of African workers in the Americas not just for Portugal, but for England, Spain, and other growing colonial powers.
However, this also led to a growing moral dilemma for the Christian nations of Europe. Originally, slavery was justified because Africans and others were non-Christians. In Spain it started with the Inquisition, where non-Christians were determined to be less than human. Others rationalized the practice of black slavery by using a passage in the Bible about Ham who committed a sin against Noah. His black descendants were condemned to be “servants unto servants.” However, as more and more missionaries and pastors converted free and enslaved Africans alike the religious rationale found itself on shakier grounds. After all, how could one be expected to enslave another human who worshiped Jesus? In 1667, Virginia created a law that stated that Christian Africans could be kept in bondage, not because they were heathens, but because they had heathen ancestry. It was believed that God had marked them as “mongrels.” From that point forward slavery started to be about race, not religion. Blacks became something less than human in the eyes of powerful whites. Where once indentured white servants worked side-by-side with black slaves -often intermingling and marrying- after the 1600’s laws were created that prevented white and blacks from intermarrying or creating mixed “race” offspring.
White Makes Right
We are not claiming slavery was ever okay, but before the age of colonialism slavery was a more of a local matter. Yet, with the discovery of the New World, it became big business. Suddenly, the dehumanizing of Africans was a matter of profit and that meant governments, businesses, and the powerful white men of the world had a vested interest in making sure the myth of race became solid fact in the minds of all Europeans and Americans. It was a matter of profit that white people thought of African slaves as entirely different biological entities, beings who were unlike them or their wife or their child. After that it became only a matter of time before classifications were applied to anyone else who was not “white,” such as Asians, Natives, Indians, Muslims, Jews, Italians… wait what?
The term “white” is a purposely nebulous term. It does not actually define any type of ethnic or national group. “White” was created basically to mean “Normal.” Anyone who was non-white was the “other.” They were not normal by the standards of the established white power structure. Jews, for instance, -despite being light-skinned- were often considered as something less than white. As far back as medieval times, Jews were demonized as witches and forced to flee countries in the face of Christian prejudice. Before the 1800’s most immigrants to United States were from Northwestern Europe: England, Ireland, Spain, France, Germany, etc. By the end of the Civil War and well into the 20th century, American started seeing more immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe: Greeks, Italians, Russians, Polish, etc. These people despite their complexion were still seen as non-white. They had odd customs and spoke different languages. Italian Americans were even lynched in 1891 in New Orleans. Despite initial antagonism, Italian Americans and most European immigrants have since been accepted into the “white” power structure. This is partly due to their assimilation but also partially due to the mass of Latin American, Indian, and Asian immigrants that arrived during the mid to late 1900s. In comparison, Italians and Polish no longer seemed so strange, so they became “White,” which at least was a more generalized and benign classification than the word some Americans used for white people before… oh… 1940 or so.
We don’t use the “Aryan” anymore due to obvious reasons, but we did. In fact, to a lot of European Americans it was a source of pride and a bestselling 1907 book. Make no mistake the word was very much tied with racial superiority even before the Third Reich. Funny enough, we do still use the word “Caucasian,” which is less “goose-steppy” but no less self-aggrandizing, inaccurate, or meaningless. Caucasian comes from the Caucasus area that borders Europe and Asia. That is not where all white people live nor where all white people originated. In 1795, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach picked it as a term to represent white Europeans because he wanted to underscore the beauty of the white-skinned. It also has a lot of mythological intonations, featured in aspects of Jason and the Argonauts. So, really it is just another way to say that “white” people are better than the rest, but that idea of biological superiority is as scientifically false as the myth of Caucasus.
The Science of Prejudice
Science is not bigoted, but scientists and thinkers can be, and that has played its part in the myth of race. The idea of polygenism, started with philosophers in the 1700’s, like Blumenbach or Immanuel Kant. Pseudo-science like phrenology developed around the same time as a way to prove that other races were intellectually inferior to white people. It was also used to justify the subservience and “timidity of black slaves.” Pieter Camper in 1770 measured faces and declared that Greco/Roman statues -the “ideal” human- had a 90-degree facial angle, Europeans an 80-degree angle, Blacks a 70-degree angle, and orangutans a 58-degree facial angle. Thus, he believed that he had established the hierarchy of mankind.
After phrenology was debunked, the 20th century turned toward eugenics. Once again, pseudo-science became popular as the rich and elite white population justified their own status through biology. It also use to explain why white people could never be allowed to “pollute” their gene pool with black DNA, lest the children inherit undesirable genetic traits like “criminality” and “pauperism.” Apparently being poor or crooked were a genetic trait in the 20’s and 30’s. It also led to sterilization of undesirable populations. Those who were believed to be mentally impaired, black, Mexican, and Asian were coerced or forced to be sterilized in the United States, so that their genes could not corrupt the “American race.” Thankfully, eugenics and sterilization fell out of favor after a man named Hitler became the poster child for the movement. Yet, even up to the 1970’s as many as 25% to 50% of Native American women had been sterilized.
For the record, most individual humans vary from each other genetically by .1%. 85% to 90% of that variation has to do with your family and genetic heritage. Only 10% to 15% of that variation has to do with what continent your ancestors originated from. That means an Irish American could be more closer -genetically- to a Kenyan American than they could be to someone in Ireland. “Race” does not exist, biologically speaking, and even if it did how do you differentiate between “Black” and “White?” After all, most African Americans have at least -on average- 16.7% of European DNA. At what percentage does someone stop being “Black,” and start being “White?” 40%? 50%? 80%? Or does it really have to do more with our social perception than any actual biological makeup?
Fade to Black
The ideas of “Black” and “White” are so impossibly vague. The only difference between the two is that out society values one over the other. For instance, it is common for people to point out that Barrack Obama is half-white, but would that get pointed out so frequently if he was a convicted drug dealer? No, because we have been conditioned by centuries of social reinforcement to believe that “race” exists, and since we cannot define it in precise biological terms we instead define it socially. Black is associated with “criminality,” “pauperism,” and “low intelligence.” Yet, the idea that one complete subset of the population is preconditioned to be, act, or do certain things is, scientifically and ludicrously untrue. If you don’t think so, than talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson and see what his take on the stereotype of black intelligence might be.
Race is such a deceptive and insulting word. It implies something biological that is not true. Elves, Dwarves, Faeries… these are races. They have night vision or +2 Strength, but humans of varying skin color have no different advantages or disadvantages over one another, besides the normal delineations between one human individual and the next. “Race,” plain and simple, is a social construct. It was created by wealthy white men to justify an economic system of slavery and reinforced by bad science and a prejudicial power structure afraid of losing social and economic status. It only has the power and truth that we chose to award it, which means much like Faeries, if we stop believing in it, maybe it will finally lose its power.