What is the Meaning of Race?

Racial classification structures social life so deeply that it is easy to assume that ‘race’ is a basic, eternal aspect of reality. Most race theorists question this assumption. However, we still disagree about the historical origins of ‘race’. Most argue that ‘race’ is modern, while some argue that it is medieval, and significantly fewer that it is Ancient.


What’s silly is that we use one of the most evolutionarily plastic genetic characteristics, pigmentation, to classify people.

People of different ethnicities do differ, but not in the way that most wipipo think they do.


I had to look up “wipipo”, but it definitely fits the sentiment.

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It is fairly eye opening to realize that “race” was invented essentially within the last several centuries, yet it can appear to be an ancient and self-evident reality.

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One might claim that some notion of “race” is implicit in old concepts like “hoi barbaroi”, “gaijin”, or “goyim”.

Perhaps racism is tribalism in a cheap tuxedo.


That’s just one of several well-worded sentences in this thread which excellently exposes a fallacy of racism.

A helpful observation I tend to use with people who are stuck in “he/she is a different race” thinking is to point out that the better organ donor for a particular WASP patient might be an African-American—and vice versa. Skin-color is irrelevant. What matters is tissue type, such as those based on human leukocyte antigens, HLAs. (Of course, different ethnic groups can have different frequencies of HLA types and blood types.) For some reason, this fact causes at least some people to pause and reconsider what they think they know about “race.”

All of that said, as a has-been linguist I also can’t help but think of the lexicographic history of the word race. For example, at the time of Charles Darwin, a common meaning of race was “variety”, as in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. (Of course, that book was not at all focused on human varieties.)

Another common meaning is “subspecies”. Or consider the frequently mentioned “host races of the apple maggot fly”.

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People can often be assigned to their population of origin by using enough genetic markers. Does that validate the concept of “race”? I argued with someone about that over at Sandwalk a few years ago. I ended up saying that since we can probably tell North Swedes from South Swedes that way, that implied that there must be very large numbers of “races”. Were there maybe 1,000 “races”? The other commenter said that yes, maybe there were. We both left it there, but I think that this is a very different notion than what people usually call “races”.


And what about the Central Swedes, and the North and South Central Swedes, and all the other ever-finer gradations from place to place? Geographically structured genetic variation ≠ race.

I reflexively believe that racism is as old as human society itself, and I admit I could be completely wrong. It might be worth digging through Roman and Greek manuscripts to find their views on race, tribalism, nationalism, and the like.

As @jongarvey notes, a concept of “race” did not exist in antiquity. The author in this article argues “race” began in late medieval Spain, but it’s clear also that their understanding of “race” was far different than our understanding now. I’d agree to point, but note that he left untapped the conversation about Adam and Eve, including the concept of race put forward by the polygenesis of La Peyrere.

He does provide a good summary of some of the tensions here:

Where does this leave us? The concept of race is late-medieval; it was applied to the Jews and Moors as a way of naturalising their identities, and as a tool for discrimination. Race as a scientific concept, on the other hand, is modern, and brings the concept of race into contact with the taxonomic project of classifying the entire human species into smaller units. This was used as a way to unify the species in accordance with a literal reading of the Bible, according to which we are all descended from Adam and Eve. And it was used as a way to divide the species by imposing a racist hierarchy and offering a justification for white supremacist ideology, slavery, apartheid and genocide.

The author notes that some people argue “race” began in antiquity, but this is a minority position, and any concept of “race” at that time was very different than what we mean by “race” at our point in history.

The capacity to hate the outsider has been present since Cain. But it becomes unhelpful, I think, to bracket all such ideas together as “race.”

The Romans looked down on “barbarians” because they spoke oddly (“ba-ba-ba”). But legions were made up of all the colours in the Empire, apparently without discrimination. The English and the French spent a millennium fighting each other, though racially identical - they were political rivals and there was “history” of land disputes and so on. Even dislike of Jews and Moors was primarily a religious issue, and only secondarily “racial” in that both religions were identified with particular political entities.

So I agree that valuing humans differently on the basis of skin colour, epicanthic folds and so on, whether with scientific or social justification, is a relatively recent phenomenon, and likely to be shortlived if we can discourage intersectional people from attributing every societal upset to racism, thus resinforcing the spurious racial entities.

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Looks like this article confines itself to concepts of race and racism in Europe, rather than further afield. Once you step outside Europe, you can push concepts of intrinsic race and systemic racism a lot further back in history.