Fact-check: the idea of ‘race’ is not modern but late-medieval | Aeon Essays

The history of race helps us understand the conditions in which racism flourishes. If we could find the origins of racial classification, then we would know for certain that racism is not an inevitable aspect of social life. Furthermore, if it turns out that ‘race’ is a modern invention, then dismantling certain modern institutions would help fight racism. But if ‘race’ is not modern, then such an approach might be misguided, and we should explore commonalities and differences in how racialisation works over the longue durée. Either way, it is crucial that we locate where the idea of ‘race’ comes from. Is ‘race’ modern?

Race theorists have long disagreed about how to answer that question. This is not, however, because of disagreement about the historical facts. Rather (as I argue in a recent paper) the debate remains unresolved largely because the question itself is ambiguous. When race scholars ask whether or not race is modern, they end up answering six entirely different questions. By unbraiding these, we can better understand the history of ‘race’ and racialisation.

The first of those six questions is whether the concept of race is modern. The term appears in translations of Ancient texts, which makes it seem as though the Ancients had some concept of race: one can find, for example, the term ‘race’ in translations of Hesiod’s genealogical poem Theogony, written around 700 BCE. The term that is translated into ‘race’ is ‘genos’, which is hardly an ancient Greek word for ‘race’. Consider Hesiod’s discussion of ‘genos gynaikon’ – the ‘race’ of women. ‘Races’ are supposed to be composed of individuals who tend to procreate with each other. Ancient Greeks meant something very different by ‘genos’ than we moderns mean by ‘race’.

So we must be careful not to project our concepts onto the Ancients.
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