“There is no culture in color. There are no muscular or mental abilities connected to melanin. There are no character traits, no virtues, no vices, no values connected to skin color. “ (Anthony Peterson, TEDxAntioch)


If there is no scientific basis for race among humans, then how was race invented?

For most of human history, people had no notion of race.  As John Biewen asked in his TEDxCharlottesville talk “Who invented the notion of being white, or black?  And why?” If there was no notion of race, who invented it?  And why does it usually have negative connotations?

in ancient Greece, for example, the Greeks thought they were better than other people not because of some idea that they were innately superior -- they just thought they'd developed the most advanced culture.  So they looked around at the Ethiopians and the Persians and the Celts and they said they're all kind of barbaric compared to us; culturally, they're just not Greek.

In the ancient world, there was lots of slavery -- but people enslaved people who didn't look like them and they often enslaved people who did.  In fact, the English word “slave” is derived from the word “Slav” because Slavic people were enslaved by many different groups of people, including Western Europeans.  For centuries, slavery wasn't about race because no one had thought up race yet!

So who invented race?

The first articulation of racist ideas appears to be a Portuguese writer named Gomes de Zurara.   He wrote a book in the 1450s in which he did something that no one had ever done before.  He lumped together all of the people of Africa, a vast diverse continent, and he described them as a distinct group which were inferior and beastly -- despite the fact that in pre-colonial time some of the most sophisticated cultures in the world were in Africa.

So why did Zuara make this claim?

Much like today, the answer lies in following the money!

De Zurara was hired to write a by the King Alfonso V of Portugal just a few years after slave traders had effectively pioneered the Atlantic slave trade, as the Portuguese were the first Europeans to sail directly to sub-saharan Africa to kidnap and enslave African people.  So, it was suddenly helpful to have a story about the inferiority of African people in order to justify this new trade to other people, to the church, and to themselves.  

With the stroke of a pen, de Zurara invented both blackness and whiteness as he basically created the notion of blackness through this description of Africans, and blackness has no meaning without whiteness.

Other European countries followed the Portuguese lead in looking to Africa for human property and free labor, and in adopting the fiction about the inferiority of African people.

All of which means that racism didn't start with a misunderstanding -- the idea that since you’re a different color, you must be inferior.  Instead, it started with a lie to justify the brutal exploitation of other human beings for profit.  And since that lie persisted for hundreds of years, spreading throughout Europe and then through colonization around the world, it became imbedded in society’s thinking and led to the systemic racism that exists today.


Adapted from John Biewen’s TEDxCharlottesville talk, “Seeing White - Who invented the notion of being ‘white,’ or ‘black?’  And why did they do so?” February 19, 2020.”  https://www.ted.com/talks/john_biewen_seeing_white.  For a complete transcript of the talk, click here.

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