5. Constructing Race


In this meeting, we will discuss the construction of race by natural philosophers between 1750 and 1850.  We will begin with a discussion of what race and racism is and is not. Then, we will examine the role that anatomy played in constructing 19th-century racial discourses.  We will conclude with a discussion of an essay written by Frederick Tiedemann in 1836, which challenged some contemporary preconceptions about the relationship between race and physiology.

By the end of this meeting, you will be able to

  1. Explain the relationship between discourses about race and gender in late 18th- and early 19th-century medical writing.
  2. Trace the concept of “race” as a historical category.
  3. Define “racism.”


The concept of race is a relatively modern phenomenon — one that developed side-by-side with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Thus, racism was born of slavery and the slave trade, not the other way around. The history of race and racism is a complex phenomenon that we will be returning to throughout this course. As such, it is important to understand the origins of racial concepts as well as to address some common misconceptions.

What is Race?

Before we look at the history of racial theory and racism, let’s get a sense of what race is. Complete each of the following short exercises:

Now, going a little deeper, let’s look at biology and consider if there is a biological basis for race.

The History of Race

Watch this short video about the history of racial theory: The Story of Race

Now, read this essay on the History of Racism in North America

What is Racism?

As you have seen, race is an historical concept created by Europeans. Despite the fact that it is not “real” (in the sense that it is a universal natural phenomenon), it nevertheless has had a profound effect on modern societies around the world. So, ask yourself: what would happen if we could make the concept of race disappear overnight? The answer, as you no doubt realized, is that the effects of racial ideology linger even when we make the concept of race disappear. Discrimination, the wealth gap, segregation, and more do not simply go away if we ignore race. This realization suggests that “racism” is not simply the active application of racial concepts to discriminate against groups of people. It is something more. Let’s have a look.

As with the history of slavery, it is useful to be precise with the terms that we use. For example, serfdom is not the same thing as chattel slavery, even though both are forms of slavery. Likewise, we can usefully cateorize racism. For example, we can agree that racial bigotry and prejudice are forms of racism. But, to be more precise, there are active acts of bigotry and racism, and there are passive acts of bigotry and racism. Calling someone a name, joining the KKK, or hurting someone based on their race are active forms of racism. As Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum argues, “Passive racism is more subtle and can be seen in the collusion of laughing when a racist joke is told, of letting exclusionary hiring practices go unchallenged, of accepting as appropriate the omissions of people of color from the curriculum, and of avoiding difficult race-related issues.” [Beverly Tatum, “Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations about Race (Basic Books, 1997), 11] In other words, one can be passively racist if one benefits from the racism of others.

A good example of this is “institutional racism”. Institutional racism is a system of advantage or disadvantage based on race. [David Wellman, Portraits of White Racism, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 27-62] This system allows a group to control social, economic, or political power by virtue of their racial classification. One of the primary ways that this happens in Europe and the United States is through “white privilege”, an historical consequence of centuries of racism. White privilege may function overtly. For example, many suburbs around the United States are populated by middle class white families who self-segregated themselves after WWII. And, quite often, they actively discouraged integration. Because of their mobility and wealth, they were able to create better schools and town infrastructures. As a result, their property values increased, allowing them to build their wealth. Their heirs were more likely to go to college and get good jobs. However, there are more mundane forms in which “white privilege” can happen. This is demonstrated very well in Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Read pages 188-190.

Of course, racism is not the only form of discrimination, and racism is cut across by discrimination based on class, gender, sexual orientation, language, and more. We will continue to discuss these themes throughout the course, so be sure to bookmark this lesson so you can revisit some of these ideas.

The secondary and primary works that you will be reading for this week are:

Reading Questions:


  • You must complete the History Publication Report for the article by Londa Schiebinger. Be sure to upload a copy to your Oncourse Dropbox before class. Also, bring copies (either printed or digital) with you for class discussion.
  • Using Tiedemann’s and Combe’s essays as your core source material, work out what would constitute a good research question.  Type your question and provide justifications for why it would make a good research question.  Bring copies (either printed or digital) with you for class discussion.  In preparing your response (approximately 250 words).  You may find the following guides useful:


race, racism, physiology, phrenology, scientific racism, monogenesis, polygenesis


One thought on “5. Constructing Race

  1. Pingback: Racism, Racecraft, and the Folly of Tolerance | Exploring the Past

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