Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Etymology of Race

Chapter 2 in Race in North America covers the beginnings of the idea of race as it is thought of currently.  Race as late as the 17th century was still a nebulous concept and was used to group individuals not by complexion but by status, temperament and generations among other things.  Later assumptions of behavior were attached to race.  Race was then used to refer to those who were non-European or, in the case of the Irish, non-English.
Evidence of the word race first appears in the Middle Ages in reference to animal breeding stock.  The meaning evolved to be equitable with people/type/variety to classify the native populations in colonized areas.  By the mid-1700s race had become an accepted means of categorizing non-European cultures because the definition now included hereditary traits.

 Value judgments were attached to race in an effort to show non-Europeans as other, not pious or morally lacking.  Also, since value was placed upon wealth, and wealth was necessary for personal freedom, those without wealth did not own their labor or their person.  Since the purpose of colonization is to extrapolate the new countries resources, the human populations were seen as resources since they had no wealth, freedom or the right to personal ownership in the eyes of their colonizers.  Race could then be used as a means of perpetual subjugation.


  1. Forgive me if this is a stretch, but when I was reading this chapter I kept thinking of Max Müller’s “disease of language” theory. Müller, a Sanskrit linguist, applied this concept specifically to mythology, but it essentially has to do with how the meaning of words can morph over time within or between cultures. The word for Zeus, according to Müller, came from the Indo-European word for “sun” which represents the allegorical nature of many of the Greek deities. In our example here in this chapter, we are explained that all of the European groups that came to colonize the new world use the word “race,” or a word from the same root. Smedley explains that the word may be derived from the Arabic “ras” meaning “chief head, origin or beginning.” Not quite "race" in the way that we use it, but as Jayleene has pointed out, it does carry a certain connotation of power or authority over others that may have been diffused or “diseased,” if you will, into the English language.

    1. Stephanie I do not think that was too much of a stretch. I actually understand your concept. It help me look at the situation at a whole new angle and was very helpful. It was a step out of the box and a way to connect dots in my head.

    2. I totally agree with this Stephanie! The fact that language and meanings change over time has a great affect on the ideologies that they hold. I think that race is a very well hidden construct and because of that we get the miseducation of what race really is and that fact that it was based on knowledge and not assumptions or personal ideas.

    3. I also agree with the above statements. Words in languages are constantly changing, and being used with different meanings. With race and how it help the concept of power; there you have the beginnings of cast system. In which chapter three goes into more detail that the word was used to separate the elite from the peasants. I hope that we can further discuss this in class because I really enjoy how this book takes us back to the origins as to why race started to become a larger ideal in separating groups of people from one another.

    4. I also really agree with these statements. One of the most interesting things I read in the book so far was this chapter. Something else that really was interesting was it went from meaning chief to "follower of headman", indicating the hierarchy and connotation the word now receives. Along these same lines, I agree with Jeronica's statement that it really has become a misunderstood word and topic now because of the assumptions made.

  2. I found it interesting that the original use of the word "race" in the English language included references to humans and animals which shared some common feature. The English began to use the term more as a way to refer to humans who were not like them, and to assign animal-like, or savage, characteristics to those people. The Irish, and later the Africans and Native Americans, were described as heathens and savages, and by making them seem inhuman, the English felt entitled to treat these people as nonhumans, or animals. This must account for some of the extreme cruelty of the treatment of people of other races.
    It is also interesting that the English and the Spanish, while both using the term "race", and both colonizing the New World, had very different perspectives on race, which resulted in differences in the way racial groups were constructed in their respective areas of the New world.

  3. This chapter made me question how important the concept of "race" really is, considering humans were able to thrive for thousands of years without it. But today, race affects the way many people interact with one another every day. What is it that made the appearance of "race" such a seemingly necessary aspect of modern society? I agree with What Rebecca said above about race being used as a means by which colonizers executed their power and created different caste systems.

    This might be going back to chapter 1 a bit, but I'm reminded of what Eleanor Leacock theorized about the origins of discrimination and class systems. She argued that in the past, everyone within a group was considered pretty much equal, and that the rise of class systems only appeared with the rise of the state and the beginnings of capitalism, in which everyone became more concerned with individual wealth as opposed to the general wealth of the community. Thus, creating systems of classes and various ways to categorize and discriminate. As Europeans began colonization, they were viewing the world through European lenses, in which they viewed those they encountered as being "poor" or "barbaric" based on their own perceptions of wealth, knowledge, hereditary traits, and how they've learned to classify people. The development of the word "race" as well as the shaping of its definition over time allowed Europeans to further express the idea that "we're better than you" based on their preconceived notions and their own societies' tendencies to split society into a hierarchal system, justifying the persecution and exploitation of these people.


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