BLACK HISTORY MONTH: The Invention of Racism


Content warning: Two examples of historic racist imagery, used to depict what pseudo-science was being used. Historical engraving depicting enslaved people on a plantation. Historic use of racist language. 

The invention of racism 

“The modern day use of ‘race’ is a human invention”- Natural Museum of African American History & Culture.

Did you know that before the 1500s the term ‘race’ was merely used to identify those with kinship or a group connection? For example in some Shakespeare works, lines such as ‘a race of Bishops’ or ‘a race of saints’ were used, and we even meet an African king in another of his works – Othello. Race as we know it did not exist in the same way. The use of ‘race’ as it is used today to identify differences such as skin colour has NO scientific or biological backing and was created purely as a means to excuse slavery. In previous articles we have learnt that evidence shows all humans come from Africa and all our DNA is 99.9% identical. That means skin colour is quite literally skin deep!

The invention of racism is also the invention of Whiteness as a concept. It is White history as much as it is Black history. The theory of race based on colour would be invented as the need for enslaved African labour became more pressing. Enslavement was powering not only industry but was quite literally building a new country for Britain – America. This new country was meant to be the ‘land of the free’ where ‘all men were created equal’ but it also needed to be able to continue to use enslaved labour, particularly enslaved African labour and therefore something was required that would ensure these laws and rights could not be extended to them. 

In the earliest days of slavery in the Caribbean and America there is evidence that the social position of Africans and their descendents was more fluid and not initially overcast with an ideology of inequality or inferiority. This meant Black enslaved people and White indentured servants could be found working side by side, eating, drinking and connecting. But the plantation owners knew all too well that their cruel treatment of indentured White Europeans, and their even crueller treatment of enslaved Black Africans, might lead to thoughts – or worse – actual uprisings. Significantly outnumbered, the plantation owners lived in constant fear of uprisings, particularly incidents such as Bacon’s Rebellion, in 1676, which saw indentured Europeans fighting side-by-side with free and enslaved Africans against Virginia’s colonial government.

Depiction of Enslaved people on a plantation. Source: Timetoast.

So we can see that although there was a hierarchy in place it wasn’t immediately based on the colour of people’s skin. Christian religious identity instead was used back then to create division. Christianity was crucial for the development of the English slave trade – and eventually for the development of racial whiteness. In the early 17th century, plantation owners were still reliant on European indentured servants, they were often treated brutally – the conditions on Barbados, England’s wealthiest colony, were notorious – but they were fortunate in at least one respect: because they were Christian, by law they could not be held in lifetime captivity unless they were criminals or prisoners of war. Africans enjoyed no such privilege. It meant Africans who weren’t Christians were considered infidels and could therefore be enslaved with impunity. For many years plantation owners would use the excuse that as their enslaved Africans weren’t Christian, that they could continue to be treated as sub-human property. In fact they would go so far as to discourage them from being converted to Christianity. Plantation owners gave their “Christian” servants legal privileges not available to their enslaved “Negroes”. The idea was to buy off the allegiance of indentured Europeans with a set of entitlements that, however meagre, set them above enslaved Africans.  Toward the end of the 17th century, this scheme witnessed a significant shift: many of the laws that regulated slave and servant behaviour – the 1681 Servant Act in Jamaica, for example, which was later copied for use in South Carolina – began to describe the privileged class as “whites” and not as “Christians”. 

This was the beginning of racism as we recognise it, but how did the switch from faith to colour happen? We see the beginnings and the reasons why above, but how were they able to make it about colour specifically? By using pseudo-science. Historian and author David Olusoga explained that “the book that, arguably, did the most to disseminate racial ideas about Africans was written by a man who never set foot on African soil. Edward Long was a slave owner and the son of a slave owner, his family having been in Jamaica since the middle of the 17th century. His ideas about Black people and Africa were widely accepted as being rigorous and scientific, although Long had no scientific training. The book that made him famous, his History of Jamaica (1774), was not a history book but rather a strange hybrid; part travel guide, part discussion of British colonial rule and economics in the Caribbean, and part political score-settling. But it is also the classic text of 18th-century European pseudo-scientific racism”. The damage from these false categorisations of people can still be seen today, the notion of ‘race’ as a concept to mark differences between human beings and the backward belief that somehow White people are ‘natives’ in Northern Europe and America. 

In the 17th Century European Enlightenment philosophers (though enlightened remains to be seen in this instance) were being asked to ‘prove’ that people of Black African descent were inferior. The very way the questions were framed ‘Why are Africans inferior?’ did not even allow for them to consider that they quite clearly weren’t. 

“These new beliefs, which evolved starting in the late 17th century and flourished through the late 18th century, argued that there were natural laws that governed the world and human beings. Over centuries, the false notion that ‘White’ people were inherently smarter, more capable, and more human than non-White people became accepted worldwide. This categorisation of people became a justification for European colonisation and subsequent enslavement of people from Africa” (Natural Museum of African American History & Culture).  

The image attached to this article highlights examples of racism in science that were formed to create the excuse for slavery. Physician Josiah Clark Nott (1804-1873) used early anthropological concepts to promote the idea of polygenism- the view that the human races are of different origins. This theory has since been disproved through DNA research, which shows that all humans have 99.9% of the same genetic makeup regardless of the colour of their skin. 

“Types of mankind or ethnological researches, based upon the ancient monuments, paintings, sculptures, and crania of races, and upon their natural, geographical, philological, and biblical history” (Nott, Gliddon, 1854) (J.C. Nott and Geo. R. Gliddon/Google Books). License: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
Nott, Josiah Clark, 1804-1873. Types of mankind: or, Ethnological researches… Philadelphia : Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854.

For the wealthy and powerful the invention of race based on colour not only gave them an excuse to continue enslaving Black people it also had a very convenient side-effect on poor White communities, it would provide a level of supremacy to those White people over Black poor people. At the top would be those with land, money and power, plantation owners. And below the elite class were the small planters who owned a handful of enslaved people. These farmers were often self-made and fiercely independent. Small farmers without enslaved workers and landless Whites were at the bottom, making up three-quarters of the White population—and dreaming of the day when they, too, might own enslaved people. No matter how wide the gap between rich and poor, class tensions among Whites were eased by the belief they all belonged to the “superior race.” Many convinced themselves they were actually doing God’s work taking care of what they believed was an inferior people.

This supremacy would go on to be preached in the churches, in literature, in books and around the world. It laid the path for British and European colonialism. in previous articles we have shared just how advanced and important African nations and civilisisations were to the world yet the ‘White superiority’ rhetoric would give credence to the concept that Africa is incapable of ruling itself, a rumour that has stuck to this day. 

As we roll forward the clock there began a new take on ‘whiteness’. 

 “The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing – a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed” (WEB Du Bois).

This notion of personal whiteness was entangled with the notion of White supremacy and because of its economic advantages spread rapidly across the globe. We know that ‘White Supremacy’ as it is packaged to us today is quite obviously bad, but this focus on supremacy in its most extreme forms meant that the rest of what whiteness really means has retreated as a subject of public attention, giving way to a new rhetoric of racial colour-blindness.

Instead of looking too hard at the sordid history of whiteness, many White people find it easier to consider that the civil rights movement accomplished all the anti-racism work that needed doing. Laws were changed. Equality had been achieved as a result. The reality however was that the vast embedded economic and cultural discrepancies allowed White people to continue to exercise the institutional and structural power that had accumulated on their behalf across the previous three centuries. Being white had its advantages then and still does today, it’s just people don’t talk about it. When we start to review these notions of ‘race’ that we understand today we can see the toxic impact that racism has had socially.

One thing to remember is that ‘race’ is a construct invented to justify the trade of African people as slaves, it is based on no scientific evidence and has been disproved countless times in more recent history. This division of people by colour has multiple impacts, it allowed and still allows for the elite to remain wealthy, whilst also pitting poorer people against each other, it also means that today when we hear the words Black Lives Matter that there is outcry, when in fact what is still clear to see is that they still don’t matter as much as White lives.

Acknowledging whiteness and the racial constructs that affect people is a crucial step along your anti-racist journey.