Blogbook -- Chapter 1: The Systems of Racial Categories

Entry 6

Okay, so race is an evolving concept over time in different places on the Earth. It has, and still does, tacitly organize much of our world and understandings of our world and ourselves. This happened because of conditions in Europe that coincided with colonizing efforts, empire-building, exploration, missionary work, and of course, the intellectual currents that gained currency in Europe. But what exactly were the systems of race that birthed the concept we have today?   

The first racial classification systems were published by Francois Bernier (1625-1688), Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), and Johann Friederich Blumenbach (1752-1840). Blumenbach’s would be the one that sticks, but he’s at the end of a line of early racial pseudo-scientists. The earliest system, Bernier’s system, was based on geography, complexion, and physical traits. Published anonymously in the Journal des Sçavans (1684), Bernier had four divisions or “species” of people: . “1. The ‘first’ race; 2. The African negroes; 3. The East and Northeast Asian race; 4. The Lapps” (note 26). 

The second, third, and fourth divisions of people were compared to the “first” race, which was mostly Europeans, with people from the areas of South Asia, North Africa, and America in it. It was not exactly a category that we might today call a “White” racial category, rather it was more about geography and people from similar climates, which tended to include people who seemed to have mostly similar complexions. However, it was clear in his writings that Bernier understood the first race to be an original species of humans that others seemed to deviate from. Thus a tacit hierarchy in the categories existed.

Carolus Linnaeus was explicitly influenced by Aristotle’s methods, and used his ideas of genus and species to offer groupings of primates and humans together in his book, Systema Naturae (1735). He was the first to place humans in the animal kingdom and in the same groupings with primates, which caused a stir at the time. Again, similar to Bernier’s tacit hierarchy, Linnaeus offered an explicit one, one that established a natural order of animals and humans. In the first edition of his book, Linnaeus gives four human divisions or species: (1) “Europæus albus,” (2) “Americanus rubescus,” (3) “Asiaticus luridus,” and (4) “Afir niger”(note 27). While his groupings were based mostly on geography and complexion, his descriptions also offered inherent traits. Drawing on Stephen Jay Gould’s study, Jana Evans gives Linnaeus’ descriptors of each species, which were originally in Latin: 

Linnaeus assigned distinct racial attributes to each category: “For the American variety, Linnaeus wrote ‘rufus, cholericus, rectus’ (red, choleric, uptight); for the European, ‘albus, sanguineus, torosus’ (white, sanguine, muscular); for the Asian, ‘luridus, melancholicus, rigidus’ (pale, yellow, melancholy, stiff); and for the African, ‘niger, phlegmaticus, laxus’ (black, phlegmatic, relaxed).  (note 28)

Linnaeus’ categories of people were value-laden and seemed to have a hierarchy or a natural order with moral distinctions between categories, given the descriptors of each category. His categories described inherent qualities of each group. These qualities appeared to be static final causes of each species of humans. This logic in the meaning of the categories makes sense given how influential Aristotle was to the very religious, Linnaeus. Furthermore, Linnaeus’ system added a new dimension, color.

Georges-Louis Leclerc,
Comte de Buffon
In 1749, Georges-Louis Leclerc, later naming himself Comte de Buffon, published Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière (A Natural History, General and Particular), a project he’d spend the rest of his life on, and others after his death would pick up and continue. Buffon’s eight volume collection would eventually expand to thirty-six volumes by 1804, sixteen years after his death. Buffon’s work might loosely today be called natural history with some science in it, but as many have noted, his prose was flowery and metaphorical. It often reads more like a novel or poetry than a scientific treatise on animals, plants, and other natural phenomena. This quality may be one reason why his books were so popular. 

While Buffon believed that variations in humans were due to climate, habitation (how a group lived or maintained customs), and diet, he also saw language as significant. He divided people into six categories: Lapp Polar, Tarter, South Asian, European, Ethiopean, and American. Furthermore, Buffon didn’t think that species were necessarily permanent -- that is, he was not sure that there was an eternal essence to any human or animal species (note 29). 

He left open the idea that groups of people or animals change, or could change. This may be best seen in his theories on species degeneration, which paved the way for robust discussions on what would be evolutionary theory by scientists such as Charles Darwin (1809-1882) (note 30). Ultimately, Buffon’s contribution to the racial pseudo-science of the eighteenth century was to reinforce human categories as a way to understand groups of people, and to maintain final causes or teleological descriptions of groups of people, even if those attributes or traits may change over time since they were based on climate, habitation, diet, and language. 

Now, the most durable racial categories, the ones that would be used up to the contemporary era, come from Johann Friederich Blumenbach, a German physician, naturalist, physiologist, and anthropologist. In his first edition of De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa, (The Natural Variety of Mankind) in 1775, Blumenbach identified four varieties (or varietas) of humans, but by the third edition (1795), he’d use the terms gens and gentilitius (or people) (note 31). It’s at this point that scholars have tended to translate his terms in the third edition as “race” and “racial.” Blumenbach rested on five racial categories, and by the third edition, they were: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. While he didn’t see these categories as static or fixed, they were explicitly hierarchical. 

The “most beautiful and preeminent” was the Caucasian, with two ways to deviate or decline from that ideal human (note 32). On one side was the Malay, which was a middle category descending to the Ethiopian. On the other side was the American that descended to the Mongolian. 

Despite his ideas that “varieties of mankind run into one another by insensible degrees,” Blumenbach maintained, teleological final causes as a way to describe each race in terms of appearance (note 33). I should emphasize that Blumenbach didn’t believe that Ethiopeans were of a different species of humans from Cacausians, nor did he think they were close or related to apes, as many did at the time (note 34). Blumenbach felt that while Ethiopians may be a degeneration from the Caucasian, they were clearly human, with human capabilities.

His term Caucasian, which he called the “most handsome and becoming” of all the races, comes from his locating the seat of this racial group in the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, which is at the intersection of Asia and Europe, a stretch of land that is centered between the Black and Caspian seas. It is situated in the modern day country of Georgia and part of Russia. Blumenbach explains of Caucasians that they display “the most beautiful form of the skull, from which as from a mean and primeval type, the others diverge by most easy gradations on both sides to the two ultimate extremes (that is, on the one side the Mongolian, on the other the Ethiopian).” Even his illustrations of the skulls of his categories imply this degeneration from the Caucasian and its inherent beauty and scientific basis (see Figure 2) (note 35). Blumenbach’s sense that Caucasians (seen in the middle of Figure 2) were the best and most beautiful of the races makes sense on several grounds. 

At the time, the Caucasus Mountains was believed to be the place where Noah’s Arc was grounded in the Biblical story. It was also thought to be the place where Prometheus formed humans out of clay. It was a mythical place of human origin, as well as the location of the highest mountain in Europe, Mount Elbrus, located at the Northern end of the Caucasus Mountains. Blumenbach references this obliquely by saying of the location that “we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones of mankind” in the Caucasus Mountains (note 36). What he means is that the origin of humanity as an animal is the Caucasus Mountains and the Caucasian variety of humans ought to be considered the original variety of humans. This may suggest that Blumenbach assumed the area to be the origin of the human race, as the stories of Noah and Prometheus suggest.

Şehsuvar Hanım,
the Circassian wife of Sultan
Abdulmejid II (1898)
It may also have helped to have legends of “Circassian beauties” in literature and myth circulating for centuries before this (note 37). What Blumenbach focused most on in his descriptions of each category were markers of physical appearance and the shape and size of skulls and their features (as Figure 2 shows). Blumenbach was a longtime student of human skeletons and skulls, and his work was instrumental in what would later become craniometry, which is not to be confused with the pseudoscience of phrenology that was becoming popular at the time (note 38). The power of Blumenbach’s descriptions were in the ways that his racial categories appeared to be scientific and precise, objective and neutral. To help, he used a discourse that focused on numerically measuring skulls and other physical features with careful drawings of skulls and other physical features. 

Making such observations, in Aristotelian, Hobbesian, and Lockean fashion, means you make categories, and so make knowledge and science. This marking of racial difference would continue for centuries, as Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans, and Sean Nixon explain (note 39). This means that calling attention to, fetishizing, and representing over and over particular arbitrary physical differences creates race. It circulates those representations of race in society as markers of physical difference, which suggest other more innate differences among groups of people. Again, travel narratives and other ways of representing race and racial difference played a big part in the construction of race through history, even today. The key, then, to the creation of the concept of race is a discourse about it, a racial discourse that literally fabricates race out of thin air. 

Brave Work

Investigate and write for 30 minutes. 

Choose any series, show, movie, or even an advertisement or commercial that offers more than one racial representation, different people interacting. Study it closely for the ways that race is represented through markers that you (the reader/audience) are supposed to recognize as markers of race in some way. Racial markers could be ones of appearance, clothing, culture, food, language use, behaviors and practices, or even geography and location. 

What are the racial markers of each person represented? Where do those markers come from historically? How did they come to be associated with these racial representations (Why do you recognize them as racial so easily)? What values tend to be associated with those markers (are they good, bad, something else)? Can they be ranked or placed in a hierarchy? Are there any atypical or uncommon markers associated to racialized bodies? Are you supposed to notice them as uncommon to that kind of body? 

You likely noticed that Blumenbach’s term, “Ethiopian,” shifted in popular use to “Negro” at some point. As seen in Bernier’s and Linnaeus’ categories, the term had been around, but not always used. The term “Negro” was first used by the Spanish and Portuguese when they encountered Southern Africans in their attempts to find routes by sea to India during the sixthteen century. Negro is an adjective that means “black” in Spanish and Portuguese, but also has Latin roots (niger), which is what Linnaeus was using in his “Afir Niger” category. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the earliest reference of “Negro” in loosely the way it is understood today in a 1555 text by Peter Martyr of Angleria, The decades of the newe worlde or west India conteynyng the nauigations and conquestes of the Spanyardes, but it’s not until the later 1700s that the term becomes conventional in English, and it stops being conventional in the 1960s-1970s (note 40).

The term may seem mostly harmless, but as Kwame Nantambu explains, it is not harmless, and was never meant to be a neutral term. It was meant to identify a perpetual slave, a cursed son of Ham, who had innate evil and darkness in them. The Biblical story of the curse of Ham stems from a passage in Genesis, chapter 9. After drinking a lot of wine and becoming drunk, Noah appears to have collapsed in his tent naked. Ham comes upon him and sees his nakedness. He tells his two brothers, Shem and Japheth, who then walk into their father’s tent backwards with a covering and lay it upon their naked father, not looking at him. Noah awakens, realizes what Ham has done, and curses Ham’s son Canaan. 

In the King James version of the Bible, verses 25-27 give Noah’s curse: “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.” 

Linking the term “Negro” to the curse of Ham seems significant regardless of whether the Biblical account is true or just a story. It’s cultural and political relevance and significance are clear. Canaan’s descendants were said to be those of Africa, thus they are Biblically doomed to serve, to be slaves of all other races, which would come from Shem’s and Japheth’s descendents. Nantambu draws on the African-Caribbean scholar and civil rights activist Richard Benjamin Moore. In The Name "Negro": Its Origin and Evil Use (1960), Moore explains that not only did the term Negro equate to such racist and vile attibutes but the term was necessary in the slave trade. It created a hierarchical difference inherently in people that justified the slave trade on Biblical grounds. The history of slavery and colonialism of Africa generated and needed the term in order for Europeans to exploit Africa and its inhabitants (note 41). 

What I hope is clear in this quick history of the early but influential racial pseudo-scientific categorical systems is just how contentious the idea of race was, and how slippery it has been as a set of terms. It may be more useful to think of race, then, not just as a concept but as a discourse. That is, race as a discourse has contained in it particular categorical logics and principles; language, terms, and nomenclature; assumptions about teleological “final causes”; and hierarchies of value. 

Race, as Omi and Winant remind us, is an evolving process. It changes over time. And racial discourse has always been political. Thus, racial discourse is complex and has evolved throughout history as different people have taken it up and used it for their purposes. Today, it continues to evolve and shift in meanings. 

By the 1700s, racial discourse organized a multitude of things for Western societies, language, ideas, understandings of people, politics, laws and policies, and the value of various seemingly different kinds of people. It justified conquest and slavery. It provided tacit ways to make sense of a confusing and tangled global world. But mostly, it allowed European monarchs, republics, and empire-building groups to justify a range of practices, projects, and endeavors.

The purpose of these projects were to enrich White Europeans and place them in positions of power and privilege over everyone else. It happened first in global markets of trading and slavery, then in local markets of chattel slavery, and later Jim Crow laws in the U.S. Ultimately, this means that the idea of race created an insidious outcome, racism and White supremacy. Racial discourse birthed racist discourse.

In Stamped From The Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi explains how ideas of race were a critical part of the beginnings of U.S. history, how each founding father, from Increase and Cotton Mather to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were influenced and engaged in racist ideas, all of which sprung from “Enlightenment” thinkers, such as Locke, Hobbes, Bacon, and Descartes. Kendi explains: 

For Enlightenment intellectuals, the metaphor of light typically had a double meaning. Europeans had rediscovered learning after a thousand years in religious darkness, and their bright continental beacon of insight existed in the midst of a “dark” world not yet touched by light. Light, then, became a metaphor for Europeanness, and therefore Whiteness, a notion that Benjamin Franklin and his philosophical Society eagerly embraced and imported to the colonies. White colonists, Franklin alleged in Observations Concerning The Increase Of Mankind (1751), were “making this side of our globe reflect a brighter Light.” Let us bar uneconomical slavery and Black people, Franklin suggested. “But perhaps,” he thought, “I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind.” Enlightenment ideas gave legitimacy to this long-held racist “partiality,” the connection between lightness and Whiteness and reason, on the one hand, and between darkness and Blackness and ignorance, on the other. (note 42)

And so, the concept of race evolved over time as a discourse, not just an idea. This racial discourse has been from its beginnings one that signals hierarchy and value in people, one made by Europeans in order to do their bidding. And so, it turned ideas of race easily toward racism, another discourse.


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