Racism before 1400 was not common to most human societies. It is not mainly rooted in the human condition.
The common mix-up is between ethnocentrism and racism:
- racism – dividing humans into “races” based on physical appearance, like skin colour, with the aim of ranking them from highest to lowest according to supposedly unchangeable, inborn qualities, like intelligence, civilization, moral character or beauty.
- ethnocentrism – judging other cultures based on one’s own. This leads to the illusion that one’s own culture is best. From this comes stuff like “American exceptionalism”, non-Greeks as “barbarians”, China as the “Middle Kingdom” and Inuits as “the Real People”.
Ethnocentrism is common if not universal in human history. Racism is not.
If US society were merely ethnocentric, not racist, there would be no perpetual foreigner stereotype. Respectability politics and Indian boarding schools would work: cultural assimilation – taking on Anglo American ways – would be enough to overcome prejudice.
The people we call Whites have been writing about the people we call Blacks for over 2,400 years. Only in the last 300 or so years have Whites consistently stereotyped Blacks as savage or violent.
Before 1400, before the rise of Western imperialism and its idea of “race”:
Ancient Egyptians: Painted people with roughly the right skin colour but rarely if ever called a person “black”, “brown” or “white”. Accepted as one of their own anyone who took on Egyptian ways. Respected the darker-skinned Nubians.
Ancient Greeks: Divided the world into Greek and barbarian based on language, not race. Greek science favoured nurture over nature. Aristotle accounted for the greatness that was Greece through Goldilocks geography: it was not too hot or too cold or too wet or too dry, but just right.
Rome: The top people came from all parts of the empire, like the Ivory Bangle Lady of York (pictured at top). Emperor Septimius Severus was Black. Having skin “like Corinthian bronze” was seen as a good thing. Barbarians looked different (Germans were tall with yellow hair, for example) but could become civilized by taking on Roman ways.
Europe, 400 to 1400: Christians divided the world by religion, not race, and duly carried out atrocities against heretics, Muslims and Jews. Jews were not racialized – there was not even the stereotype about Jewish noses. Christians saw darkness, and therefore the colour black, as representing evil. This was built into English.
Arabs: There was some prejudice against Blacks, but it was personal, not backed by law, religion, science or even custom, as it later would in the West. Arabs had both White and Black slaves.
India: The holy writings of the “Veda” say nothing about caste being about skin colour. Key figures in the “Mahabharata” are dark-skinned. Unclear how much of India’s present colourism comes from British rule.
China: Seems to have had some colour consciousness. That some people who looked different lacked civilization was not seen as an accident, but neither was it seen as an unchangeable, inborn condition: they could become civilized, for example, by taking on Chinese ways.
- Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East; An Historical Enquiry” (1990);
- “The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization” (1998);
- Ali Rattansi, “Racism: A Very Short Introduction” (2007);
- Barbara Mertz, “Red Land, Black Land” (2008);
- Nell Irvin Painter, “The History of White People” (2010);
- Audrey and Brian D. Smedley, “Race in North America” (2012).
- respectability politics
- perpetual foreigner stereotype
- Anglo Americans
- Arab racism against Blacks
- Western racism: