Where do our ideas about “race” come from? Did slavery create racism? Why can’t we all just get along?
Many people think “race” and racism have been around forever. When we look at historical records from earlier times and places we find our ideas about “race” are quite different than ideas held by people in the past.
In the ancient world, slavery was a way of life. Many slaves were owned by Egyptian, Greek, and Roman aristocracy. But these slaves did not necessarily have different skin color from their owners. Slave owners acquired their slaves through capture in warfare, punishment for crimes, colonialism, kidnapping and piracy, and other means. Even the inability to pay a debt might make someone a slave.
Slavery didn’t end with the fall of Rome. During the 15th through 19th centuries, many of the most powerful European countries engaged in colonialism. Much of the Americas, including the U.S., Cuba, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Atlantic Nicaragua were colonized and Africans were enslaved to work the conquered land.
In places where the European colonists brought slavery and settled, the mixing of populations between those of European descent and those of African descent created mulatto or Creole cultures. These cultures were typically “caste-stratified by skin tone and more broadly by the degree of ‘African-ness’… as opposed to ‘European-ness’ that an individual or family exhibits.” from Bad Subjects, “Colorless All-Color”: Notes on White Culture.
The U.S. is also a mulatto culture, but instead of becoming caste-stratified a color line was drawn dividing society into two exclusive groups: Whites and non-whites. Americans created a division between people that didn’t exist before and that we still feel the effects of today.