A less typical angle on race and racism is to look to the ancient world. Some early texts and other evidence can be used to this end. But these sources are sparse and the authors weren’t representative of the average person.
Plus, we end up projecting onto the past. That is how the early ideas of race developed, as those thinkers themselves looked to ancient texts. Scholars agree that modern notions of scientific racism didn’t exist in the ancient world. Still, it is normal in all periods for others to be perceived according to differences, although similarities are often emphasized.
It can be problematic to call this proto-racism, though. That is anachronistic. There is no proto-racism. There is just racism, which itself is inseparable from the rise of scientific thinking. It’s like calling the earliest Egyptian Empire proto-modern because it was an early example of what modernity would build upon millennia later. Or it’s like calling the Roman Empire proto-industrialization because they were an industrious people who liked to build infrastructure that helped their economy to develop.
Racism is a word with a ton of baggage to it. That baggage didn’t exist in the ancient world. Their entire way of looking at the world and identifying themselves is alien to us. This is something I don’t think many modern people appreciate, scholars included. Go far back enough in time and you’re in not just a foreign world but a foreign reality. It’s hard to enter a mindset so different from ours or even to imagine what that mindset might have been going by such limited evidence.
As an example, ancient people had a different sense of ethnicity, culture, language, and religion. These things didn’t exist to them. There was simply the world they knew. It also seems there was much fluidity in those societies. We can see that from how much people borrowed ideas and traditions from one another, and were regularly creating new syncretistic cultures and social systems.
The Greeks weren’t a single people. It took centuries for a collective identity to form through trade and travel. Greek culture became so influential that colonized people and even foreign empires adopted Greek mythology as their own origins. It was irrelevant whether or not people shared ancestry or necessarily looked like one another. A mythological system like that of the Greeks allowed for a fair amount of broad inclusion.
The same pattern was seen with the Celts. Like the Greeks, they had formed a large, influential trading society. It spread their Celtic culture, including religion and language, to other populations. The Irish weren’t Celtic when they took on Celtic culture.
To be Greek or Celtic was a specific worldview, not a race. It’s like calling oneself an American, an identity that contains diversity and means many things to many people. Yet Greeks and Celts, like other cultural groups, were perceived in terms of physical features. Romans saw as significant that Celts had blue skin. Were Celts born as a blue-skinned race. No, they dyed their skin blue. That is what Romans saw on the battlefield, a bunch of naked men who were blue all over.
Other cultures dyed their skin or hair various colors or else permanently modified their bodies in other ways: scarifying, tattoos, extending earlobes and lips, etc. Plus, each culture had a different way of doing their hair along with having different clothing, jewelry, etc that they wore or else lack thereof. Even two genetically near identical groups could appear as absolutely different in physical appearance, not to mention other aspects of culture, religion, language, and social behavior.
To ancient Romans or Greeks, the blue-skinned Celts were more foreign than darker-skinned Egyptians or even more foreign. Some Romans did speculate on such physical differences, but not more than they speculated about all of the thousands of other differences (and similarities) between various cultures. Besides, a barbarian was someone who spoke a different language, specifically a language that wasn’t Greek or Latin (or else spoke accented, provincial Greek or Latin), no matter their physical appearance. And a foreigner was simply anyone who was outside of one’s door, which is to say outside of one’s home and homeland. Ancients perceived certain groups as ‘other’, but race as we know it wasn’t a mental category they had to place people in.
Sure, white and black were colors with great symbolic value in the ancient world, often indicating moral and aesthetic value. It’s just not clear how that applied to people. Ancients unlikely portrayed all darker-skinned people as ‘black’, considering that darker-skinned people are actually varying shades of brown. The Roman Empire, in particular, was a cosmopolitan society including many Africans who weren’t just slaves but also gladiators, charioteers, soldiers, entertainers, philosophers, theologians, priests, and even numerous popes and emperors—diversity was found both in Rome and at the frontier and this diversity led to intermixing, through culture and marriage. Also, I doubt various swarthy Mediterranean peoples looked to the Irish and Scandinavians as being superior because of their lighter skin, no matter what was their view of the symbolic value of light and dark.
Besides, we’re not entirely sure the skin color and tone of various ancient populations, as much population mixing has occurred over the millennia. For example, the early Jews probably were darker-skinned before outbreeding with Europeans and Arabs (Palestinians are descendants of the original Jews that never left). Or consider how those early Jews perceived the Samaritans as a separate people, even though they shared the same holy texts. The ancients had plenty of prejudices, just not our modern prejudices. There is much debate about when and how long it took those modern prejudices to develop, but they certainly didn’t exist in classical antiquity.
Lets just be clear that skin color was no more defining of otherness than anything else, although in any given context in a particular text a particular defining feature would be emphasized. Sure, someone could look for all the examples of ancient people focusing one thing while ignoring all of the many more examples when ancient people focused on other things (and many have done this). But how would that offer any insight into anything beyond the biases of the person looking for examples to fit a preconceived ideological worldview?
Worse still, talking about proto-racism gives an air of inevitability to racism. How could proto-racism become anything other than racism? The theory of social construction offers an alternative perspective—as stated in a review of Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?: “Hacking provides an interesting perspective on this whole trend by de-emphasizing the social aspect and focusing on the construction aspect. He views this simply as a way of arguing against the inevitability of something.”
Maybe the precursors to racism could be interpreted differently. And maybe their subsequent development is much more historically contingent than many assume, which is to say maybe there are many pathways that might not have led to racism as we know it or anything like it. What happened isn’t what necessarily had to happen.
Seeing the past with fresh eyes is difficult, as the main evidence we have are texts, what people wanted to be remembered and how they wanted it to be remembered. The texts that survived were either written by or favored by a long lineage of victors that shaped what civilization would become. And traditions of interpreting those texts have also been passed down by the victors. To impose one’s ideological views, racial or otherwise, onto others is the ultimate privilege for who controls the stories a society tells controls that society.
Consider a specific piece of evidence. In Airs, Waters, Places, Hippocrates of Kos has a passage that indicates a worldview of environmental determinism. Some modern scholars have interpreted this as proto-racism.
The problem with this is that environmental determinism is often used as evidence against modern race-based explanations of human differences. What Hippocrates argues is that people are the way they are because of the environments they live in, but that leaves much left to explain. He never claims that people have inherent traits outside of an environment, that people can’t change by changing environment. That is significant for in the ancient world, entire populations were known to migrate to new environments. This point is emphasized by how, during the colonial era, Europeans began to worry that their unique identity or superior character could be lost by spending too much time in native environments. Also, Hippocrates seems to argue, using Greeks as an example, that people in other environments can sometimes take the best traits from nearby environments while making them their own and so not be trapped by environmental determinism of their own narrow environmental niche.
By the way, the majority of the Greek population were slaves and the majority of slaves were ethnic Greeks. When Greek thinkers sought to justify slavery, they sometimes argued about physical differences. These perceived differences, however, weren’t skin color. Instead, the slave was different, even more animal-like, because he stooped over or something like that. It’s not as if supposedly stooped over people represented a separate race. Greek society was rare in having so many slaves, possibly the earliest example. The reason there were so many slaves is because Greeks were constantly fighting each other and they chose to enslave rather than kill the defeated people. Africans and other non-Greeks were rare slaves among Greeks and they were highly prized as more valuable than the ethnic Greek slave.
The negative connotation was in being enslaved, not in being a particular ethnicity or race. This is why group identity was so often based on kinship, more than even ethnicity. What differentiated the enslaved ethnic Greek and the free ethnic Greek is that they didn’t tend to intermarry, unless a slave gained freedom or a free person lost it, which wasn’t uncommon but even then a former slave wouldn’t likely marry far above their own class. Kinship identity in such a society was to some extent class identity (and that remained dominant until the end of feudalism and persists to this day with the aristocracy in Britain), although most importantly kinship was about familial descent. It required later multicultural colonial empires for larger group identities to form, but the fluidity of ancient ethnic/cultural/mythological origins demonstrates an early form of larger identity (specifically in how origin stories were more mythological than biological). It’s hard to make clear conclusions with confidence, as much vagueness exists in ancient texts.
Even if we wanted to accept that proto-racism is a valid theory, how is environmental determinism (or whatever other similar theory) clearly, necessarily, and inevitably proto-racism? Others have noted this is extremely weak evidence being used in a biased manner. We are in severely problematic territory. Race has been shown to be scientifically meaningless, as the genetic difference between humans is smaller than found in most similar species and certainly couldn’t justify the classification of racial sub-species. Trying to interpret the past according to a proto-racism lens based on modern racialist thought is asking for endless confusion and hence false conclusions.
There is already enough confusion in the world. This confusion is even found among highly intelligent and well informed people. This was demonstrated to me recently when talking to a guy I’ve known for many years. He is a left-winger in the Marxist tradition, although when he was younger he was a right-winger, maybe a libertarian or something like that.
I’ve talked to him many times over the years about race and racism. He is well versed in views such as race being a social construct. In talking to him not too long ago, he kept repeating that he didn’t think race as social construct meant what liberals think it means. I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at. He knows me fairly well and so knows that I’m not a typical liberal. He also should know that liberalism is a wide category, including much disagreement, as I’ve often explained this to him. Who are these ‘liberals’ he speaks of? And what does he think they think? I don’t know.
As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t seem like anyone really knows what it means to say race is a social construct. The one thing that is clear is that ideas are powerful in the human mind, in shaping imagination and perception. Talking about this, we are going deep into the muddy waters of the psyche. The confusion that exists goes far beyond a single ideological group such as liberals.
I didn’t think too much about this at first. I figured maybe he meant that people weren’t thinking carefully enough. I’d agree with that much, if that is what he was trying to communicate. Then he said something that caught me off guard. What he said was basically this: That Africans look all the same. Or at least look more the same than Europeans. Of course, he used scientific terminology to make this statement. But the basic message was too close to bigotry for my taste. I was surprised to hear him say it.
Ignoring the racist connotations, it simply makes no sense scientifically. Africa has the most human genetic diversity in the world, moreso than all the rest of the world combined. I told this guy that I doubt Africans would agree with him about his assessment. He tried to defend himself by saying he visited Africa, as if a visit to Africa would even begin to touch upon the vast number of distinct populations across a vast continent, second only to Asia in size of landmass.
This racist/racialist/race-realist viewpoint is even more meaningless in the larger historical context. In the ancient world, all Mediterranean people had more genetically and culturally in common with each other than they did with the other societies far away on the the respective continents. For example, some Greeks looked to the Egyptians as their cultural forefathers, as the source of great art and high culture. A number of great thinkers in the supposed ‘Western’ tradition didn’t even come from Europe, such as Augustine who was an African (even some ‘Greek’ philosophers weren’t born and raised in Greece: Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius, etc). Millennia of Mediterranean trade had not only spread culture but also genetics. The genetic aspect can still be seen today, as certain Southern European populations and certain Northern African populations remain linked by common genetics.
The statement about all Africans looking the same (or more simiar than other found on other continents) in order to justify racial ideology could, at best, be called lazy thinking. The guy who made this statment is normally a more careful thinker. And he wouldn’t accept that kind of simplistic comment from someone else. That is the problem with ‘race’ as an ideological lens. By design, it adds confusion to the thought process. That is its purpose, to obscure details and pulverize them into a mass of generalizations.
Having been raised in a society where racial ideology is ubiquitous, such a social construct gets embedded deeply in our minds. Trying to free ourselves of such maladaptive thinking is like trying to remove a barbed hook out of your chest. This is one of the most powerful memes ever released into the world. It messes with your head in a way few things can. It’s a mind virus of plague proportions, easy to be infected and yet no known cure.
It’s hard for us to imagine a society that might have operated with entirely different social constructs based on entirely different worldviews and cultures. This is why the ancient world ends up being a foreign land. Go back far enough and societies begin to seem incomprehensibly alien to us. And this can be disconcerting. It’s more comforting to get the past to fit the present.
I would point out that we don’t even have to look to the ancient world to see how much the world has changed over time. The word race was originally used to refer to such things as breeds of cattle. It came to be associated with socioeconomic class in the feudal social order. Peasants were considered a separate ‘race’ from the aristocrats and monarchs. As others have pointed out, “in early modern discourse, the concept of race was primarily linked with notions of bloodline, lineage, and genealogy rather than with skin colour and ethnicity.”
It’s not just that broad groups were seen as different: Europeans vs Africans, Eastern Europeans vs Western Europeans, Germans vs French, Britains vs Mainland Europeans, English vs Irish, etc. Originally, race was seen as distinctions within a single society or some other defined population area, which is to say there wasn’t even an English race, much less a white race (such thinking persisted into modernity, such as how Antebellum American whites in the North and South talked about one another as if they were separate races, Roundheads and Cavaliers). If notions of race itself were so drastically different in the recent past, imagine how different was thinking millennia before race was even an idea.
It wasn’t until the era of colonial imperialism in Europe that Europeans even began to think of themselves as Europeans. This is because of their encounter with American Indians who were more different than any societies they had ever before seen. Europeans, Middle Easterners, and Africans had been interacting with and influencing each other for Millennia by that point. However, American Indians were foreign and strange beyond all imagination, and this required new ideological thinking.
If (proto-)racism existed in the ancient world, how would we recognize it without any word for and concept of ‘race’? Early texts show evidence of prejudice and othering. I get that some elite thinkers among an ethnic group like Athenians considered themselves as part of a distinct people, but that was such a small population that shared physical appearance, culture, religion, and language with neighboring Greeks. How could a tiny population be considered a race in any meaningful sense? Speculating on such meager and unclear evidence seems pointless.
Anyway, this isn’t ultimately and solely about race. Many scholars have questioned the application of a number of modern concepts to the ancient world, from the idea of a distinct thing called ‘religion’ to the experience of ‘individuality’ that we presently take for granted. The point being is that the ancient world isn’t merely the modern world in less developed form. The ancient world must be taken on its own terms. We must study those temporally distant societies as an anthropologist observes a newly discovered tribe.
It’s not only that our understanding of the present is projected onto the past. Also, how we interpret the past determines how we will see the present. More importantly, how we imagine the past, accurate or not, constrains the kind of future we are able to envision. And never doubt that imagination fueled by ideas is the most powerful force of humanity.
Anyone who claims to have all of this figured out is either lying or deceiving themselves. I could read something tomorrow that might change my entire understanding of social identities in the ancient world and how they relate to the modern world. Even the scholars in the the related fields disagree immensely.
One thing does seem clear to me, though. In the ancient world, all aspects of culture were central in differentiating people. That is unlike the modern world where race often trumps culture. It would have been incomprehensibly bizarre to the ancients that geographically distant and ethnically/nationally diverse peoples with different languages, religions, and customs would be considered as having a common social identity because of being categorized within an arbitrarily defined range of skin color and tone.
* * *
Nina Jablonski, Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color
reviewed by Josh Trapani
The Color of Sin / The Color of Skin:
Ancient Color Blindness and
the Philosophical Origins of Modern Racism
by Nicholas F. Gier
The central question: what was Hellenization
by Monte Polizzo Project
Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture
by Jonathan M. Hall
Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity
by Jonathan M. Hall
Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity
by Irad Malkin (Editor)
Lee E. Patterson, Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece
reviewed by Naoíse Mac Sweeney
Denise Demetriou, Negotiating Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean: The Archaic and Classical Greek Multiethnic Emporia
reviewed by Meritxell Ferrer-Martín and reviewed by Álvaro Ibarra
Greeks, Persians, and Perseus: Oh, My!
Herodotus and the Genealogy of War
by Carly Silver
Herodotus’ Conception Of Foreign Languages
by Thomas Harrison
Race and Culture in Hannibal’s Army
by Erik Jensen
Us vs. Them: Good News From the Ancients!
by Carlin Romano
Understanding The ‘Other’ In An East Greek Context
by J.D.C. McCallum
Philosophy and the Foreigner in Plato’s Dialogues
by Rebecca LeMoine
Roman Perceptions Of Blacks
by Lloyd Thompson
Egypt In Roman Imperial Literature:
Tacitus’ Ann. 2.59-61
by Lina Girdvainytė
Papyrology, Gender, and Diversity: A Natural ménage à trios
by M. G. Parca
The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing Identities in the Past and Present
by Siân Jones
Alterity in Late Antiquity: Disrupting Binaries
by Susanna Drake
The Origins of Foreigners
by Emily Wilson
Erich S. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity
by Michael Broder
Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, by Erich S. Gruen (Book Review)
by Craige Champion
Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (1)
by Jona Lendering and Bill Thayer
Reading Rabbinic Literature: It’s Not All Black and White
(A Response to Jonathan Schorsch)
by David M. Goldenberg
Jew or Judaean?
by Michael L. Sa
The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties
by Shaye J. D. Cohen
10 thoughts on “Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs”