Race: Fundamentals

150914BuryThis is a very, very, very basic introduction to the question of race from a historical perspective. If you’ve studied any world history, human genetics, or even just had your eyes open in the past decade, there’s probably nothing here you don’t already know. Everything I have to say has been said before, so why say it again? I have two reasons.

First, there are some more obscure and complicated things I want to talk about concerning race and history and it would be useful to have some basic points covered for future reference.

Second, there are some people who don’t know the basics of race, even some very intelligent people (even some Supreme Court justices), so it can’t hurt to say these things again.

Race is like money.

No, really, hear me out on this.

What is money? Well, for us it’s paper with patterns printed on it in ink. As an object in itself, it’s not worth very much. A five-dollar (or euro, or pound, etc.) bill is not very different from a 100-dollar bill. The only thing that makes a hundred different from a fiver is that it has a different set of patterns printed on it.

We all know this. We all know that there’s no intrinsic difference between a fiver and a hundred, but I bet you wouldn’t be willing to trade me your hundred for a couple of fives. The value of our money is real, but it is real in a different way than the paper and ink are real. It is real only because we collectively agree that it is. Money is a shared fantasy.

Shared fantasies, though, are powerful. They shape people’s lives in profound ways. The twenties in my wallet may not be “real,” but the food I can buy with them sure fills me up and people who don’t have money to buy food with know very well how real their hunger is. If we could somehow get everyone to agree that starting tomorrow, money is all just worthless paper, that wouldn’t make us all equal. Rich people would still be rich and poor people would still be poor, just in different terms. People who had previously bought mansions and fancy cars and diamond rings would still have mansions and fancy cars and diamond rings. People who could only afford crappy apartments and second-hand clothes would still live in crappy apartments wearing second-hand clothes. The people who used to have lots of money would still have the education, social networks, better health, and the other intangible benefits that come with having money. The people who used to be poor would still have to deal with the intangible problems that come with being poor.

Race is like money. It’s a shared fantasy that isn’t “real” but still profoundly affects people’s lives.

Now, we talk about race in terms that make it sound like a biological fact. We classify people into races based on biological features like skin color and minutely parse people’s ancestry and DNA to sort them into racial categories. It all sounds very real, but race is not skin color or ancestry or DNA or bone measurements or any other biological fact. Skin color and the like are an objective reality, like the paper and ink of money. Race is the decision to treat those biological facts as meaningful.

When you think about it, skin color is not a particularly useful way to categorize people. Other than your vulnerability to sunburn and your vitamin-D production, skin color has very little effect on your day-to-day life. Why do we consider skin color so much more important as a way of dividing people into categories than, say, height, weight, shoe size, blood type, lung capacity, or anything else that might actually have more relevance for our lives?

The answer, for those of you playing along at home, is history. Specifically the history of European conquest and colonization in the rest of the world.

To put it in simple terms, between about 1500 and 1970, the nations of Europe did a hell of a lot of exploring, conquering, and colonizing of the rest of the world, and like all conquering nations they exploited the people they conquered. (Note that there is nothing uniquely European about conquering and exploiting people. Aztecs, Assyrians, Mongols, and almost every other expansionist state did plenty of exploiting in their day. Empires that didn’t exploit the people they conquered, like the Persians, are few and far between. The only thing different about European exploitation is that it was global and – historically speaking – recent.)

Another thing that conquering peoples have historically had in common is the need to justify their actions by finding a way of defining the people they’re oppressing as different from and lesser than their own people. In the early literature of the colonizing period you can see the ruling elite of Europe furiously working to come up with an explanation that would let them kill, enslave, and displace all the people they wanted to and still sleep at night.

The first thing they went to was religion, which is no surprise. For much of the medieval period, many peoples in Europe routinely invoked their common religious identity as a way of organizing social and political life (with unpleasant side effects for people of the non-dominant religions or who had differing religious interpretations). Accordingly, the early movements of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English colonialism were justified by saying that since the natives weren’t Christian they were fair game.

Then the natives started converting. For the European powers it was either end the mass killings and exploitation or come up with a different justification. We all know what they chose.

Race was invented to give European imperialists and colonizers a clean conscience. By defining the people they were oppressing as inferior, the concept of race gave Europeans a pass on the oppression. Race was tied to biology and ancestry to get around the conversion problem: it was defined as a fixed, immutable, inherited quality so that not only could no one escape the oppression by changing their race, neither could their children or grandchildren.

For an idea that claims to be fixed and immutable, race is a slippery category. I don’t just mean that people can present themselves as different races at different times, but entire populations have migrated in and out of racial categories over time. A hundred years ago, there was little doubt that the pharaohs of Egypt had been white but that the Irish were not. Today, those groups have traded places. The biology didn’t change, but the politics did. The contours of race have always followed the lines of politics and power.

This is why there are no simple answers to questions about race. Take the easy-sounding question: “Were there any people of color in medieval Europe?” It seems like we ought to be able to just say yes or no and be done with it, but actually there are two answers, both equally valid and equally important.

One one hand: No, there were no people of color in medieval Europe. And there were no white people either. Those categories are meaningless outside of the context of modern imperialism. You might as well ask whether there were any Trekkies or chocoholics or John Travolta lookalikes. “White people” and “people of color” only exist where there is a racial ideology to declare them so. Absent that ideology, they’re just people.

On the other hand: Yes, there were people of color in medieval Europe. Scads of them. Everywhere. In every conceivable walk of life. Here’s a whole blog devoted to them. Provided that we understand “people of color” to be just a convenient shorthand for “people who, if evaluated by the standards of modern racial ideology, would be categorized as people of color.” And this question matters, too, because the notion that before Europeans went out and explored the world everyone just stayed in their own little boxes and didn’t go anywhere is itself part of the racial ideology invented by the imperialists. The truth is that people traveled. People have always traveled, and not just in small numbers. Big groups of people are constantly moving and settling in new homes, putting down roots, and becoming part of the local community, and that includes traveling across the racial boundaries that Europeans decided to define five hundred years ago. Proclaiming this fact is just as important to undoing the damage of race as challenging the definition of what race is in the first place.

If race is made up, can’t we just forget about it? Can’t we just declare ourselves color-blind and call it a day?

No, we can’t. Race may be a figment of our imagination, but centuries of slavery, genocide, and oppression are not. They had real effects in the lives of real people, just like money has real effects in real people’s lives. The damage that European imperialism did and justified by appeals to race is not easily undone, certainly not by simply declaring ourselves to be “post-racial” and moving on. As long as the effects of European imperialism still linger, ignoring race is just willful blindness to its real harms. Undoing those harms requires us to see race, but also to see it for the fiction that it is.

As I said up front, this is very, very, very basic. The history of race is vast, complicated, and painful to contemplate. What I have offered here is barely the beginning of the beginning of comprehending it. The most important thing is simply to remember that race is something we can think about, not just something to accept and live with.

Thoughts for writers

Those of us who go to history to inspire and guide us as we imagine new worlds have a special duty not to let our view of the past be clouded by the baggage of the present. That applies to many things, not just race, but race is the elephant in the suitcase. It isn’t that people before 1500 didn’t see skin color variation or know that different groups of people from different parts of the world had different physical characteristics. It’s that they didn’t build systems of oppression justified by casting those differences as markers of intellectual and moral worth. The same would be true of any world that hasn’t had the experience of global imperialism carried out by the slightly less brown against the slightly more brown.

It is our responsibility as writers to be thoughtful about the worlds we create and not just transpose the social architecture of our own world unthinkingly into another. The world we live in today, in all its good and bad aspects, is the product of thousands of years of history. Change that history and you would get a different result. In a world where people can fly on magic carpets, we probably wouldn’t have invented airplanes. In a world where vampires are real, nightlife would look very different. And in a world that hadn’t been subject to centuries of imperialist exploitation by less-brown people, we would have very different ideas about what it means to be any shade of brown.

Image: Moses and Aaron teaching the ten commandments from the Bury St. Edmunds Bible via Wikimedia ( currently Parker Library, Cambridge; 12th century; ink on parchment; by Master Hugo)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.