This series of post has the purpose of telling the truth about race and racism, as best I’m able. What I have to say in the end will neither particularly agree with either Conservatives or Liberals on this topic. My perspective is based on history and I am in fact suprised that history isn’t studied more–or understood better–on this topic.
I mentioned in the last post that ethnocentrism is seen reflected in the Bible in a number of ways–and when talking about Israel, is even justified in a way, even though the teachings of Jesus and the apostles worked to remove ethnic distinctions. Still, even though they encouraged friendliness to all (love your neighbor as your self, love your enemies), they did set distinctions between those inside the community of faith and those outside it (again . I Cor 5:11-12). The apostles also used language that compared Christian believers to a nation or ethnic group, even though we really are not (e.g. I Peter 2:9). So you could call the preference we are supposed to have a type of “ethnocentrism”–though technically no “ethno” or nation is involved, just a “-centrism.”
Racism is not delineated as a specific sin in the Bible for the simple reason that just as smoking cigars or cigarettes was unkown in the ancient Old World (though they did burn incence), racism as we know it was unkown in Bible times. People might have preferred their own group over others, but they had no concept of a set of races and a heirarchy among those races.
So where did racism come from? Was it from Classical Greece and Rome?
Certainly we know modern racism arose from Western culture. But what aspect of Western thought caused it?
Did it come from those philosophical Greeks? Or law-crafting and militaristic Romans? Or was it a product of the Middle Ages?
This post tackles the previous three questions and answers them NO, NO, and No, well, mostly no.
My primary source for the answer regarding Greek and Roman thought comes from Frank M. Snowden Jr, a renowned Classics scholar who extensively studied this issue. I believe his perspective on this topic reflects the academic consensus, even today, so it does surprise me what he had to say about this isn’t as widely known as it should be. (Dr. Snowden was, by the way, black.)
Snowden wrote quite a lot on this topic but circa 1992 I discovered his book Before Color Prejudice, The Ancient View of Blacks. He looked in depth at Greek and Roman sources and found quite conclusively (something I’ve also seen reflected elsewhere in classical primary sources) that the concept we know of races today was unkown to them. Yes, they showed signs of ethnocentrism, but not racism.
The term “barbarian” was applied by the ancient Greeks to “one who does not speak my language.” The use for the Romans for this term was at first “one not Roman” but eventually was applied to those outside the Roman empire. So when the Greeks and Romans looked north and south, what did they see? Did they see Europe north of the Mediterranean as inhabited by the same race as them, while Africans were another race? No.
Both the tall blond barbarians of the north and the tall dark-skinned barbarians of the south they saw as equally different from themselves. Yes, they saw themselves as superior to both groups in various ways (ethnocentrism) and they did recognize that Africans were different from themselves. But they also saw Germanic and Celtic peoples as different from themselves. And at times they directly compared Africans to Northern Europeans and saw them as having more in common with each other than with their people. Because black Africans and northern barbarians were in the Greek/Roman view less civilized, taller, physically stronger (though not as capable of working long hours in Roman prejudice), with larger bust size among their women. Whereas they saw their people as having a reasonable height and physical form and a moderate skin color.
So the concept of white as we know it that includes all Europeans didn’t even actually exist for the ancient Greeks and Romans. They saw themselves as distinct (and yes, better) than peoples from both their far north and their far south. No racial prejudice existed among them. None. Ethnocentrism, yes existed, but racism did not exist.
A Hopeful Note
I plan to build on that idea as these posts continue, but isn’t it a hopeful note to realize that since a society has already existed without racism, that means it is false that racism must always exist? Oh, definitely now that it’s around it won’t be easy to eradicate. But the notion that racism is natural to human beings, that it has always existed–that notion is false. History shows it to be false.
Which also means that “inherent bias” doesn’t have to be a thing. If there was a period in history when it did not exist, it does not have to exist now.
A Few Words on Afrocentrism
Also in the 90s I became aware of a means of interpreting world history called “Afrocentrism.” While this–uh, let’s call it a “movement” is widely discredited by many historians, it’s worth mentioning here. Because Afrocentrists in effect maintain Europe was always racist–that the supposed great thinkers of Greece and the achievments of Roman were plagiarized from African civilizations, especially but not exclusively Egypt (Egypt is seen as an exclusively black civilization as well–but it was actually mixed race and mostly not black, though some dynasties of pharaohs were black). Afrocentrism as I understand the term sees Europe as always exploiting Africa.
Frank M. Snowden Jr. didn’t see things that way–he read his sources and found the data in writings of Greeks and Romans and did not believe in effect they were engaged in a giant conspiracy to cover up how they really felt. He saw that Europeans did not in fact hate Africans or rob everything they had from them.
The important thing to note for this post is only an extreme view like Afrocentrism disagrees with the view that Greeks and Romans did not have any racism as we know it. Otherwise, everyone agrees on this subject. But far too people have heard it.
So if racism comes from Western culture (it does, we’ll get to explaining how in a future post) but does not come from the Greco-Roman ancestors of Western culture, where did it come from?
Was it from medieval thought and philosophy? That pesky Catholic church of the Middle Ages?
No. Well, mostly no. A few antecedents were around.
One cultural aspect of medieval thought was a general association with the color white as good and the color black as bad. I don’t have the time for a deep dive into this aspect of the human psyche, but it isn’t limited to Europeans. Humans generally are more afraid of the dark than they are the light–becasue we are so dependent on sight that losing the ability to see at night poses real dangers for us. And we associate glowing light with holiness or magical power–and not just Europeans have that association. If you examine Ethiopian Orthodox icons, for example, you will see a glow portrayed behind the heads of saintly people, just like other icons from other Orthodox nations.
Zoroastrianism from Ancient Persia has the ultimate association of light and dark with good and evil. And of course, their ideas didn’t come from Europe.
Note though the white/black association of good and evil was not entirely universal. In Russia, white was the traditional color of mourning and thus carried an association with death. Since medieval armor was usually shiny and “white” but sometimes was blued as gunsteel is, some medieval armor was black or black-ish. And the archetypical “black knight” in European thought did not really mean “evil knight.” Rather the association of being a “black knight” was often being mysterious. Maybe especially powerful. But not necessarily evil.
In the same vein, the English prince Edward, who ruled part of France in the 1300s was known as “the Black Prince.” And the use of “black” was not really negative in his case. And it definitely wasn’t racial.
During the Crusades we see a bit of association begin to creep into Europe that being darker skinned was a sign of being an infidel–since the Arabs the Crusaders fought against were on average of a darker complexion than they were. But this didn’t amount to any full-blown racial theory. Really it was more of a preference for their own kind–ethnocentrism–with a religious aspect to it.
More significantly in my opinion was a tendency in Medieval thought to look at the three sons of Noah as belonging to the three continents. Ham was seen as the father of all Africans, Shem all Asians, and Japheth all Europeans. In effect adapting what the Bible says to their knowledge of the three continents they knew of…except Europe and Asia are not really geographically distinct. And numerous places in both Europe and Asia the Bible says hosted decendants of Ham…plus places the Bible clearly shows mixes of decendants of Noah…but these nuances were lost on European Christians of the Middle Ages.
Class Differences in Color
There’s another aspect worth mentioning here. Most Europeans were peasants and worked long hours raising crops in the sunshine. Most Europeans had deeply tanned and sun-damaged faces and arms. However, the nobility had the priviledge of spending a great deal more time indoors. And noble women were scarcely required to go outside at all.
So someone with an actually pale face was a rarity in Medieval Europe. And this was prized as a rarity–we see quite a lot of European references to “fair women,” the word itself associating being light-colored with being beautiful. This isn’t too hard to understand.
This association of deep tanning to poverty and paler skin to nobility isn’t limited to Europe. China as I understand it had similar prejudices and I would actually expect most East Asians felt the same way. The upper castes of India are generally lighter-skinned than the lower castes–certainly an association of class and color exists there. Even the Bible in one passage reflects this class association with color (Song of Solomon 1:5, sometimes translated as “black but beautiful,” though clearly a reference to tanning), showing that West Asians also thought along these lines.
But note that an association of people of lighter skin in your own culture with them being nobility is not racism. It actually reflects a reality of who is and who is not the poor people out working in fields. Though of course preference for nobility is itself a kind of prejudice and one unworthy of Christians from what I see in the Bible. But it is not actual racism when we look at the historic past.
I would say that even though Greco-Roman thought was free from racism and medieval thought mostly was not racist, some aspects of medieval thought set the stage for the era of racism that would begin with the European “Age of Exploration.” I find the division of the world into sons of Shem, Ham, and Japheth especially significant. But other aspects of medieval thought were important as well. We’ll talk more about that next time.
Note that even thought this post isn’t specifically about fandom or speculative fiction, a lot of fantasy fiction portrays medieval times or eras that parallel medieval times. So the aspects of ancient and medieval culture that relates to racism in reality clearly relates to ficitonal portrayals of societies as well…
Readers, what are your thoughts on this topic so far? Did you already know about ancient Greece and Rome in relation to race? About Medieval Europe? Afrocentrism? Please let us know in the comments.