Blogbook -- Chapter 1: The Conditions for the Concept of Race

Entry 5 (Wed, 03 Mar 2021)

Since I’m discussing ELA and college writing or language classrooms, and race is in large part constructed by language or words, then we should be specific about the history and etymology of the word “race.” In fact, knowing about the history and development of the word “race” can provide insight into why it has the associations and power it does today. 

Western traditions have not always had the term “race” in their lexicon. In fact, the word wasn’t used in the way we use it today until around the later part of the seventeenth century CE.  Furthermore, “race” appears to have entered Western European languages, such as Spanish, Italian, French, English, and Goidelic (or Gaelic) languages between about 1200 to 1500 CE. 

Statue of William Dunbar
In his extensive study of the concept of race in Western history, Ivan Hannaford explains: “In most Western languages its [race’s] earliest meanings related to the swift course or current of a river or a trial by speed. In the later Middle Ages it sometimes was used to refer to the lineage or continuity of generations in families, especially royal or noble families” (note 13). When the word entered most European languages sometime after 1200, “race” referenced a swift current or a trial by speed, but by the last decades of the 1600s, that meaning had changed to something like what we use the term for today. 

In English, race first appeared in a 1508 poem by Scottish poet William Dunbar called, “The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins” (note 14). In the fifth stanza, the narrator describes the dance of Envy and his family or troupe of followers, which are named as “of sindry racis,” all with “fenyeit wirdis quhyte,” or “false white words” (note 15). (or “little white lies”). At this point in English language history, race referred “only to a class or category of people or things. These classes or categories were not seen as biologically distinct, nor were they seen as situated in a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority” (note 16). 

Thus Dunbar likely uses the term as a way to identify the family or category of dancers in his poem, relating them together as the family of Envy. He’s not likely associating any biological traits or physiognomy to them. However, the evil, ugly, dark, or negative associations readers are supposed to make about envy are present, and they are organized by the term race, which Dunbar was likely taking from Spanish (raza), however the term was used in Middle English (ras, raas, and rase), and of course, Scottish (raise, rais, etc.). 

OED entry for "race"

Almost a hundred years later, the term can be found in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1600), Lorenzo speaks to Jessica about listening to music at night. Shakespeare uses race to refer to a group of horses in Lorenzo’s rebuff to Jessica: 

The reason is your spirits are attentive 

For do but note a wild and wanton herd 

Or race of youthful and unhandled colts 

Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud, 

Which is the hot condition of their blood (note 17

While race groups the horses into a common category, that category is negative or less than mature, and loosely associated with biology, heard in the reference to “blood.” So how did the idea of race change? How did the word transform from meaning a swift course or current to different groups of people with inherent differences? 

According to Hannaford, to really understand how we got to the concept of race that we use today, you have to understand the intellectual ground on which such a term gained currency in Europe in the seventeenth century and afterwards. Two figures are important here, at least initially, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704). In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes offers a “law of nature” or a “natural law” that he argues people universally operate under. And he says it’s inherent in all people. In chapter 14 of part I of his book, Hobbes explains: 

And because the condition of Man, (as hath been declared in the precedent Chapter) is a condition of Warre of every one against every one; in which case every one is governed by his own Reason; and there is nothing he can make use of, that may not be a help unto him, in preserving his life against his enemyes; It followeth, that in such a condition, every man has a Right to every thing; even to one anothers body. And therefore, as long as this naturall Right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be no security to any man, (how strong or wise soever he be,) of living out the time, which Nature ordinarily alloweth men to live. (note 18)

Thomas Hobbes
Basically, Hobbes says that all people live “in a condition of war,” or “every one against everyone one.” Furthermore, this condition means that all people have an equal right to anything and anyone if they have the power to act on that right. Basically, he says, “might makes right” (note 19).

So if you have something I feel I want, say your house, and I have the power to take it from you, and I take it from you, then I’m justified by this natural law. Since we are all in a condition of war, and this allows me to also have a right to anything I can take. Hobbes’ natural law says that what I can take is rightfully mine until someone stronger than me takes it from me. You can probably hear how Hobbes legitimizes colonialism, empire-building, and slavery by saying that everyone has the right to others’ bodies if they can take or control those bodies. And race was deployed to justify such practices. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

Now, Hobbes is not linking this natural law to race, but it does help create a cultural condition where Europeans can begin to justify colonial enterprises, not just from religious grounds, which becomes increasingly difficult to do (although not impossible), but from logical and philosophical grounds, from the grounds of natural rights of people. These inherent rights allow for the colonial endeavors that most European monarchies and republics were involved in by this period (note 20). 

A bit later, arguments about natural laws of all people would turn to natural laws about different kinds of people. It’s not hard to see this operating in the U.S.’s own Declaration of Independence, which starts with: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words were written and ratified by White men who owned hundreds of slaves, and kept them all their lives. How does one justify such a blatant contradiction? Hobbes’ law of nature suggests one part of the answer, perhaps. 

John Locke
Equally important to creating these ideological and cultural conditions at this time was John Locke’s key work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), published almost forty years after Hobbes’ Leviathan. Locke promoted a scientific method that dictated that knowledge about the world and everything in it, including the seemingly different groups of people European explorers had been encountering for hundreds of years before the “age of discovery” (the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), can be best developed by collecting, observing, and sorting such worldly phenomena. To understand things and people, you collect data and sort by that data.

If you find a kind of tree or plant, or a variety of people, in the world, the best way to understand that tree, plant, or people, according to Locke’s philosophy and method, was to collect data on it, observe differences in the data, and sort by those differences. The sorting into categories of difference gives you knowledge. As Hannaford says, for Locke, “true knowledge” is accomplished “[o]nly through the collection, observation, and sorting of data” (note 21). And this collecting of data and sorting would be crucial to creating the idea of race. 

Before we move too far along, it should be noted that categorizing is not necessarily a problem. As we’ll see in a minute, Aristotle helped us consider important ways to categorize things and animals. But imposing rankings and hierarchies on to categories, say categories of people, is a problem. This is exactly what Europeans did.

In many Europeans’ minds of the time, the variety of different peoples that they were encountering in the world, and reading about in travelogues and travel narratives, begged for such a Lockean sorting method. Travelogues and travel narratives, the precursors to Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows, have a long history in many countries and regions all over the world, not just Europe. Dating back to the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, copious travel literature can be found by numerous writers from such places as Italy (Marco Polo, 1254-1324 CE), Greece (Heroditus, c. 484 - c. 425 BCE), Morocco (Ibn Battuta, 1304-1368 CE), and China (anonymous, Shan-Hai Ching, ca. 320 - CE 200). In European traditions, it was central to colonialism and empire-building of European countries (note 22). How else would they understand what to make of such different civilizations and people across the globe? 

There were other impulses and purposes that shaded European travelers’ views of far away (from Europe) people, things, and places. Many looked at such differences through their colonial aims. They were seen as people and places to conquer and acquire for their European empires. This included Christian missionary work that often was attached to such enterprises. 

Francis Bacon
But Locke wasn’t the first to consider a method for understanding the world by sorting and categorizing phenomena. Locke’s ideas were clearly influenced by Francis Bacon’s method in Novum Organum, Or True Suggestions for the Interpretation of Nature (1620), which had been published seventy years before Locke’s treatise and thirty one years before Hobbes’ Leviathan. Bacon’s method was inductive, arguing that knowledge about anything could be produced by gathering enough data, making systematic observations about a subject in tables of that data, then inductively coming to true knowledge. Encyclopedia Britannica offers a clear description of Baconian method: 

After first dismissing all prejudices and preconceptions, Bacon’s method, as explained in Novum Organum (1620; “New Instrument”), consisted of three main steps: first, a description of facts; second, a tabulation, or classification, of those facts into three categories—instances of the presence of the characteristic under investigation, instances of its absence, or instances of its presence in varying degrees; third, the rejection of whatever appears, in the light of these tables, not to be connected with the phenomenon under investigation and the determination of what is connected with it. (note 23)

Bacon’s method evolved into what is now known as the scientific method, and it is experimental in nature. In other words, you set up controlled situations in order to collect and categorize observations. 

Brave Work

Write for 10 minutes. 

Consider how you typically teach a novel, short story, or nonfiction essay to your students. How do you categorize the things, themes, or ideas (literary, ideological, rhetorical, etc.) that seem important for students to learn? Why are those categories important? How do they organize or manage (predetermine) the learning for students, or the reading experience of the literature? What biases do they have? What might they deny or hide? 

Where do these categories come from in our world? Who created them? Where did you get them? How would you racialize the places, people, and texts that make their sources for you? How might these categories colonize your students’ minds? What would their learning look like or be experienced as without these categories, or using some others instead? 

Locke’s ideas, on the other hand, didn’t require controlled experimentation as much as collecting observations of natural phenomena in the world and categorizing them. In some sense, this was already happening in voyages of “exploration” and plunder financed by most European monarchies and republics, as well as the travel literature that had become increasingly popular in Europe by the eighteenth century, and flourished in the nineteenth. But both Bacon and Locke suggested that to understand the world and the peoples in it, one might collect specimens, make careful observations of differences, and sort or categorize them by those differences. 

Bacon and Locke didn’t make up this method either. One like it had been circulating in Western traditions for hundreds of years. In fact, they were following the lead of another very influential thinker and philosopher, arguably the most influential thinker from antiquity, Aristotle (384–322 BCE). Most of Aristotle’s extant writings are categorical in nature. For Aristotle, to understand and teach a subject, like rhetoric or politics or ethics, you had to break it down into parts, then understand the parts. Whether he is discussing animals, politics, or rhetoric, Aristotle’s primary way of understanding his world and words (logos) is by categorizing his subject. 

Why? Because he thought that the nature of things, whether they were animals, ideas, or people -- their meaning, worth, and value -- could be found in their teleology, in their “final causes.” Everyone’s final cause, their meaning, is an inherent part of them. According to Aristotle, it was part of everyone’s and everything’s essence. 

Jonathan Barnes, former Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Sorbonne, provides an explanation of Aristotle’s teleology, and it explains why categorizing was a critical method for him. Drawing on Aristotle’s Parts of Animals, Barnes explains Aristotle’s thinking: 

Final causes occur in the world of nature no less than in the products of human skill, and in order to explain natural phenomena we must appeal to “that for the sake of which”. Explanation in terms of final causes is explanation in terms of “the good”; for if ducks have webbed feet for the sake of swimming, then it is good -- that is, good for ducks -- to have webbed feet. Final causes are primary because they are identified with “the account of the thing”: being a swimmer is part of a duck’s essence, and a proper account of what it is to be a duck will require reference to swimming. Final causes are not imposed on nature by theoretical considerations; they are observed in nature: “we see more than one kind of cause”. (the term “teleology” derives from the Greek “telos”, which is Aristotle’s word for “goal”: a teleological explanation is one which appeals to goals or final causes. (note 24)

Aristotle uses this teleological method of categorizing things by their final causes to make sense of everything in his fourth century Hellenic (or Greek) world (note 25). Scientists and philosophers like Bacon and Locke cut their academic teeth on Aristotle.

Bacon’s and Locke’s methods retain this teleological assumption about the things they sort and categorize. That is, when you categorize plants or people by their apparent differences, you categorize by their telos, by their inherent essences, their meaning and goal of existence. In short, Bacon and Locke provide a way to weaponize race. Race can be a set of hierarchical categories of people based on data collected, that is, based on their differences.

An important thing to understand about Aristotelian final causes is that they signal inherent traits or characteristics in the things from which they are observed. If swimming well is a final cause of a duck, then it must be inherent in all ducks. It is part of the essence of a duck. Bacon’s and Locke’s focus on categorizing as a method for understanding the world maintained this kind of assumption. What you observe and sort are the final causes of things, and these final causes tell you what is inherent in each thing. Differences that can be measured in people must be inherent and teleological, goes the logic. In short, differences in people point to who they are, or what category of people they belong to. 

Now, how does having Hobbes’ natural law rooted in humanity’s perpetual condition of war and Bacon’s and Locke’s teleological categorizing methods that draw on Aristotle make for social conditions that give us “race” as the concept we use today? Categorizing people by race was a convenient way to understand, colonize, enslave, and kill those peoples who were different in appearance, custom, and language from Europeans. And if differences told you “scientifically” about a person’s meaning, telos, or value in the hierarchy of being, then race could be a way to explain or justify a range of injustices. During the early period of colonialism -- let’s call it around 1500 to 1800 -- there were more and more questions about the various peoples and civilizations being encountered in European global exploration and colonization (mostly by England, France, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, and the Dutch Republic).

Aristotle, Hobbes, Bacon, and Locke were used to understand such seemingly different kinds of people. If people could be placed into categories, those categories must say something about different peoples’ final causes, that is, their natures, their essences, and their hierarchical placement in a global world system that allows for such categorizing. And if we are in a condition of war, and it seems clear that one group of people are weaker, less intelligent (by European own standards), and less beautiful (by European standards), then you can use these observations to make all kinds of arguments to enslave, kill, plunder, subjugate, or colonize people and places who are different from European empires. Race as a classification system for people was inevitable given these philosophical and colonial conditions in Europe at the time (1500 - 1800 CE). How else would a European explorer looking to claim and settle a newly found land for Spain or England make sense of who they find in that new (to them) land? 

The concept of race offered this kind of knowledge, and it offered hierarchies, chains of being, justifications for what Europeans wanted. Decisions to kill, conquer, capture, or trade could be made from such racial hierarchies, or at least help make those decisions. Since one of the first questions a European explorer might have is: How should I treat this new kind of person? Where are they in relation to me? One can hear these kinds of hierarchies and questions being addressed in the first racial classification systems offered. It becomes a pattern, part of the way race is understood from then on.


This blogbook is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating as much as you can to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.