A History of Race: How did it all start?
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A History of Race: How did it all start?

Part 2 of 3 A discussion on race and identity

A History of Race: How did it all start?
Jessica Bordelon

It’s time for part 2 of 3 for my series on race and humanity. Part 1 came from my modern day experience as being considered “mixed” and what that means to people, and how we negotiate our own identity inside this world so obsessed with grouping people by “race” or ethnicity.

This week, let’s look at how we got here.

Did you know that the ”race” systems applied in the world were never the same anywhere and didn’t exist before Europeans started taking over other lands? So why were the same Europeans setting up different definitions and rules for race in different parts of the world instead of using the same system?

Here’s the break down of the “racialized” system we still deal with today.

Prior to European colonization of other continents, skin color was not used to differentiate between people in societies. Culture, language, religion, and family were the various ways people were judged and treated accordingly. So a man living in Mali was considered African or Malian and if he were Muslim or Christian that could also impact his interactions with others. People who traded with him sought goods from his region and spoke to him accordingly.

However, after colonization was in full swing, he was no longer a Malian, he was of an “African” or “Black” race and judged by that. His region or economic status was now secondary in the treatment and judgment applied by outsiders.

Each of the European nations used different “racialized” systems for the regions they dominated. The systems were developed around what was needed to control the people and resources in that area. Since the cultures and ethnic variety of each region was different, one uniform system would not accomplish those goals.

It’s also important to note that these systems were not prepared in advance. The Europeans had no idea what they were getting into. The business men and criminals went out in search of the resources, and only after gaining military dominance did they begin to think about race and caste systems. These were created “on the spot” more or less, and then applied haphazardly.

For example, South America was much more densely populated prior to 1500 than North America, and the Spanish who came there did not plan to stay for long. They wanted quick wealth.

The English on the other hand, planned to stay in North America and kept themselves isolated from indigenous groups as much as possible. This worked for the most part since the people of North America were spread out with wide spots of land unoccupied.

In South America, the racialized system created a caste system that included Indigenous, African, and European people, as well as the inevitable mixed populations that would develop between the 3 groups. The goal of the Spanish was to concentrate the wealth and political power to the smallest number of people possible, to maintain their power structure. The caste system they developed did just that.

In North America, there were so few indigenous that the racialized system was based mostly on “European or African,” “black or white.” As a result, we see the longstanding “one drop rule” that developed. Aside from places like New Orleans, there was little need in North America to develop a "label" for mixed children. This population was mostly ignored until the 20th century in much of North America, simply being made to choose a black or white designation.

In simplest terms, here are the reasons for the differences in these systems:

#1 The Spanish had no intent on developing long term settlements, but the English did.

#2 Spain lived with and wanted to dominate a much larger indigenous population than the English.

#3 Spanish conquistadors needed massive slave labor immediately because their goal was quick wealth from mines and sugar cane which require hard labor and a large workforce.

#4 The English brought over more women than the Spanish did, so there were many “mixed” children born in the Spanish controlled areas, creating a large Mestizo population.

All of this taken together, created a much different race system and experience for those living from 1500 to the present in these areas. I haven’t even included how different these systems were in the northern and southern parts of Africa, or of Asia and Pacific Islands, all of which were treated very differently as well. But if anyone is interested, there is a wealth of research available on this topic.

The point is, any one who interacts with people of different skin tones differently, or judges actions differently is a servant to a racialized system that is distorting your view of the world, and directly impacting how freely you are allowed to live and move. I’ve heard well-meaning people say things about “black people” do this or that, or “Hispanic” or “Arabic” people do this or that, not realizing how limiting and false these narratives have been and always will be.

The great beauty inside a person is not bound to these labels, and you are limiting yourself and others from some amazing experiences. I believe that there is no greater weapon assaulting most of us every day than this distortion of the race system. It’s twisting and bending the lens through which we see the world.

There is nothing wrong with seeing beautiful differences in skin tones and hair textures. Noticing the differences is not a problem. In fact, praising someone’s beauty or noticing the rich variety around us, is a needed part of life. It shows appreciation for all that we are. The problem comes when we allow the differences in the way others look to impact how we perceive behaviors or what we expect of that person.

Don’t be “color blind.” That’s foolish. Be “color open.” Don’t be “tolerant.” Be accepting and respectful. Being tolerant means something bothers you but you’ll allow it. Accept, respect and appreciate the value of all God’s colors and designs. That’s how you open up the world and break the burden of race while still appreciating the beauty of humanity.

NEXT TIME: Diving into the European definition of “blackness” and the legacy of that today. Who decided which parts of the “old world” were black and which weren’t? Why did Africa get split in the European system into 2 sections: Sub-Saharan and North Africa and the Middle East?

Additional reading on this week's topic:

"The Cultivation of Whiteness" by Warwick Anderson

"The Blood of Government" by Paul A Kramer

"Meditteraneans: North Africa and Europe in the Age of Migration" by Julia A Clancy-Smith

Caste, Hierarchy and Race in a World-Historical Perspective: Louis Dumont and his Critique of Max Webe by Dag Erik Berg

Caste, Race and Heirarchy in the American South by C.J Fuller

Bound LIves: Africans, Indians, and the Making of Race in Colonial Peru by Rachel Sarah O'Toole

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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