Saturday, January 22, 2011

Origins of Race and Racism

Race did not always exist as a concept was the first of the "Ten Things to Know about Race" mentioned in class. It went from being non-existent to being the first thing that is recognized when someone of another race enters a room. After researching what the initial definition of race meant, I came to find that the original meaning was interpreted to mean "common descent," but I find Francois Bernier's account of races to be a prime example of what people still do today. By dividing the races into four categories: the Europeans, the Africans, the Asians, and the Lapps based solely on physical characteristics suggests that Bernier formed an aspect of racism. After reading "A New Division of the Earth" over, I noticed that the first species, the Europeans, received no form of critique of physical characteristics. Yet, it seemed as though the Europeans were stated as the model species. All of the other races were being compared to this "first" species. In his African explanation, Bernier says, "Their hair, which is not properly hair, but rather species of wool, which comes near the hairs of some of our dogs," was an interesting because of his word choice. He used the word "our" which indicated that he was comparing all of the other species to this first or supreme species. We came to the conclusion in class that Bernier's argument is not neutral and objective, but extremely normative in judgment. This brings me to my question of what constitutes racism? Although Bernier may have merely been commenting of what he observed, referring to a specific race as "wretched" isn't a valid observation. When does simply observing and noticing differences move toward racist beliefs? And do you think that Bernier's comments could be considered an origin of racism?

I also was interested to see how "race" was defined today. Although the definition has varied within cultures and over time, I was interested in how it compared to the original "common descent" definition. Here are the definitions below ( What do you think of these definitions? And can race really be defined?

1. A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics.
2. A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution:
3. A genealogical line; a lineage.
4. Humans considered as a group.
5. Biology
a. An interbreeding, usually geographically isolated population of organisms differing from other populations of the same species in the frequency of hereditary traits. A race that has been given formal taxonomic recognition is known as a subspecies.
b. A breed or strain, as of domestic animals.
6. A distinguishing or characteristic quality, such as the flavor of a wine.


  1. NeNe, you made some interesting points. As far as the definition of race, I don't believe that any human being can truly give a definite answer as to what race is. So many people have so many different opinions about what constitutes a "race." I also don't believe that all of the above definitions are exactly true when it comes to defining race, especially, the one that says "A genealogical line." Pulling from Bernier's Kant's argument and his belief in monogenesis, if all humans came from one common source, then they would all be of one race in this case (only with lots of natural divisions).

    Furthermore, what you said about Bernier is absolutely correct in my opinion. What he said was definitely not neutral and objective. By saying the phrase, "Their hair, which is not properly hair, but rather a species of wool, which comes near the hairs of some of our dogs," not only does he indicate that the European race is the primary and perfect race off which to build the other races, but he also indicates that the Europeans hold the power and are in control of most things, specifically, the animals of the world.

  2. If I had to pick a definition from the list presented here, I would certainly choose the biological definition. This definition is of course difficult to apply to humans today, for we have at our disposal numerous types of transportation and are no longer geographically isolated. Consequently, I believe that the future evolution of humans will result in the elimination of any distinct race thanks to "the frequency of hereditary traits" being spread among all humans.

    The biological definition also gives an explanation as to how different "races" came to have different phenotypes. As humans moved out of Africa, certain groups became geographically isolated. From this isolation came the increase in the frequency of hereditary traits. These traits were, of course, those traits chosen by natural selection to adapt to the environment in which those traits were expressed.

    Biology can give an account of how race arose, but in no way does it make normative claims about those different races. Only people make normative claims, and misuse biology when doing so.

  3. Its true and obvious now just how ignorant Bernier's observations were. One thing to note when examining the subjective nature of his claims is that at this time his target audience is solely European. I don't know how many languages his publication got translated into, but for some reason I'm pretty sure Yoruba was not included. So this is white people reading other white people--there's some inbreeding for you.

  4. I think it would be interesting to consider the idea that race is not just a geographical, biological, social, political, or cultural concept, but rather all of the above. Therefore, I would argue that the definition of race would not only depend on the company you are asking, but on the geographical location, knowledge of biology, social ideals, political stance, and cultural understanding as well. Therefore I ask, can there truly be one definition of race, since there is inherently a different understanding of race across the world. By this I mean, the assumptions and attributes that come with the idea of race and different races.

  5. I totally agree that we can call Bernier's observations normative, but I can't bring myself to be upset with his ignorance. Of course, we could have had a more educated start to the analysis of race, but I think it is completely understandable for a white, European male to make judgements such as these. Bernier is simply a product of his time; if he didn't make these observations, someone else would have.

  6. I agree with NeNe in her observation that Bernier's scientific approach to distinguishing between different types of people is contested when he begins to separate his race from those that he had seen and heard about. This separation opened up the door to people using skin color to as a way to not only define another group of people, but also as a way to emphasize the "us" race or what some people would call the "pure race". Although Bernier is what we would consider a "product of his time", that doesn't mean that we can excuse him for essentially opening the flood gates for racial divisions further down the road.


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