Inventing race


RACE was not always a lens through which we coded the world and its diverse peoples; it is anything but the “natural” category that we now treat it as. There feels to be brewing in the United States, in the wake of the recent failures to indict white cops for killing unarmed black men, what one hopes is a revisitation of the Civil Rights Movement and what it had set out to achieve. Yet, the problem in the US is so much larger than merely cops killing defenseless citizens. This is about the inhumanity of unequal arrangements and institutions that results in discrimination, criminalization, segregation, impoverishment and death along racial lines. Race is a historical construction; it is a fiction—human actions, not human biology, is what has written this fiction and the large-scale injustice it continues to inflict.

It is commonly quoted that we share 90-95% of our DNA with mice, with mice having homologues for 99% of our genes. Admittedly, depending on your metric, you can obtain lower bases of similarity, but the point is that there is a strong enough genetic relationship that we can use mice to test biological responses we may wish to test for in humans. This should be kept in mind when thinking about the actual genetic, biological differences imputed to different “races” within the human species. What differs between people—white and black, yellow and brown—on a genetic level is deeply, utterly minor.

Even our cultural understandings of race prove to be contingent, historical, unstable constructions—they change over time, and do not have anything close to global validity. In the United States in the early twentieth century, there were up to 14 different kinds of “whiteness” (this became relevant as the US crafted its immigration quotas and assigned desirability to different strata of ‘white’), with English, Italians, Irish, Greeks, Germans occupying different sub-categories with different rankings. Americans who came to the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century frequently referred to our inhabitants as “niggers,” but did the African-Americans who were forced to fight against us in the Philippine-American War look at us and recognize us as racial brothers?

Benedict Kiernan’s book Blood and Soil traces and studies the global history of genocide and extermination, from the first recorded genocide in Carthage to Darfur. Of all the cases he examines, “racial’ thinking—wherein one group assigns a difference in capability and constitution to another group that is coded as inborn and biological (rather than cultural)—first appears not in the classical era, but in the fifteenth century with Iberian exposure to the Amerindians. Yet, even still, race as we know it today does not cohere as a classificatory scheme in the West until the Enlightenment and, in particular, the development of racial sciences in the nineteenth century. (With regard to its existence outside the West, there is debate about whether classical Chinese writing on the varied, various “barbarians” outside the Middle Kingdom imputes racial difference or merely cultural difference to these peoples.)

Until fairly recently in human history, populations were far more homogenous. When different groups came into contact with each other through war, trade, migration, etc., the differences noted and employed toward classificatory schema separating one from another were religious, linguistic and cultural. If the groups in contact had greater proximity and exposure upon which to base more minute distinctions, ethnic, ethno-linguistic and political affiliation (which sultan/sultans were you under) were additional criteria for classification. But, the kind of racial classification we know today—with attendant characteristics and differences hardwired and coded through physical difference—we inherited from the West in the late eighteenth century.

The German pioneer of comparative ethnology Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s 1775 work De generis humani varietate introduced to the study of man the principles of classification pioneered by Linnaeus and developed by Darwin. Of this work, scholar Anthony Reid writes in Imperial Alchemy: “with its five-fold division of mankind into white Caucasians, yellow Mongoloids, brown Malays, black Ethiopians and red Americans, this was destined to have far-reaching consequences.” However, even as thinkers began to talk of racial divisions, the corpus of Western racial thought did not truly or majorly acquire a biological sense or hierarchical implications until the nineteenth century.

This timeline is mirrored outside the West, as thinkers in places such as colonial Malaya interacted with their European counterparts, and ethnic categories, such as that of “Melayu,” began to lose their indigenous meanings and acquire new racial tones. Similarly, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in colonial Malaya, a word for “race” itself developed. The word “bangsa,” which once referred to “caste” increasingly began to refer to “race”—moving from usages such as “bangsa syed” (‘the caste of the syeds’) and bangsa kechil (“of low birth”) to bangsa India, bangsa Bugis, bangsa Melayu. In Malay, Chinese, and European writings of the same period, the word “Malay” begins to apply more broadly. Whereas once it referred only to the Malaccan royalty and its subjects (a political category), it comes to refer to the many “Malay” regions of the peninsula, Sumatra, and surrounding islands. (See Anthony Milner’s The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya for further information on this development.)

The mobilization and understandings of race developed around the modern world at different paces and with different inflections, concomitant with diverse historical developments—from the fall of the Han Chinese to Manchu rule, and the development of Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement, to the hardening of the institution of slavery in the United States. But it is with this historical understanding of what was a construction of something like “race” and the hierarchy of and divisions between races, that the world around us today can seem so grim. For race is not a natural, biological category in the slightest, and it is the beliefs we hold and the history we collectively shape that carve such an understanding.

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University


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  1. I once had a discussion like this article with my father when I was 10 years old,
    he told me that what was more important was and is that if the common person has enough money to buy rice and salted fish to feed his wife and children.

  2. Frank A. Tucker on

    If one really wants to understand race and its inherent problems today I HIGHLY recommend reading: “THE BELL CURVE”
    Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life

    By: Richard J. Herrnstein & Charles Murray
    Pub New York: Free Press 1994
    First Free Press Paperback Ed. 1996

  3. Amnata Pundit on

    AS far as historical records are concerned, this problem of race goes as far back, if not earlier, as when God created the Jews to take over the land of another race, the Canaanites. That story went on to become the problem of the Jews becoming slaves in Egypt, down to the time of the black slavery in Amerika and so on. That the race problem has been around for thousands of years seem to indicate that mankind is not equipped enough to overcome it without Divine intervention, after all He started it.

  4. What a load of tosh. Do you think we need an explanation to tell us who is who & why. We learn all that in history. But its a fact people use the race card, they always have & always will. These incidents in the usa where a couple of blacks had died at the hands of the police, the reason it doesnt happen to whites it when told by the police to do something they do it. If you dont then things like this hapens. I was a taxi driver for over 12 years & when i started people told me dont stop for young black males, i said i will stop for anyone who flags me down. I soon learned why you dont stop for young black males. Almost every single trip was trouble with them. From being accused of taking them the long way to get a higher fare. Then when you get somewhere they want you to wait, & they want to get out before they pay & a lot if you allow it will run off without paying. Now we know not every single black guy does that but so many do those things its easy to understand why people treat them differently.