At a time of Black Lives Matter, racism is in the news yet again. Why is racism still with us when it’s so clearly wrong? Where did this idea come from in the first place?

Science is clear. We are one human race. We’re all related, all descended from a common ancestor in Africa. Some people walked out of Africa into colder, darker places and lost a lot of their melanin, some of us more than others. But genetically, we are all 99.9 percent the same.

So how did this all happen? How did racism start? And what’s it got to do with slavery?

First of all, race is a recent invention. It’s just a few hundred years old. Slavery, on the other hand, is thousands of years old. And yes, in the ancient world, there was lots of slavery. But people enslaved people who didn’t look like them, and they often enslaved people who did look like them. So slavery was never about race, in those times, simply because no one had thought up the concept of race yet.

The first articulation of racist ideas was by Gomes de Zurara, a Portuguese man, who wrote a book in the 1450s in which, he lumped together all the people of Africa and he described them as a distinct group, inferior and beastly. Zurara was hired to write that book by the Portuguese king.

So European Christian morality, of the time, prohibited the enslaving of fellow human beings, who were seen as equals in the eyes of God. Portuguese slave traders were the first Europeans to sail directly to sub-Saharan Africa to kidnap and enslave African people. They desperately needed a justification for their trade in other human beings. So it was suddenly really helpful to have a story about the inferiority of African people to justify this new trade to other people, to the church and to themselves.

So racism didn’t start with a misunderstanding, it started with a lie.

Once we, as people with white skins, understand that people who look like us invented the very notion of race in order to advantage themselves and us, isn’t it easier to see that it’s our problem to solve?

But this isn’t about shame or guilt. White guilt doesn’t get anything done. History isn’t my fault or yours. So wherever we show up, with this sense of responsibility to do something, we need to show up with humility and vulnerability and a willingness to put aside this sense of entitlement, this feeling of privilege, and put down this power that we did not earn.

I believe we also stand to benefit if we could create a society that’s not built on the exploitation or oppression of others. But in the end we should do this, because it’s right.


by Neil Fairbairn

Based on a TED Talk “The lie that invented racism”, BY John Biewen

NOTE: Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author only and not necessarily of the CLP or its wider membership.

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