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Who Started Racism? History, Examples, Ways to Take Action

Racism occurs when an individual, community, or institution discriminates against someone based on their belonging to a racial or ethnic group, in particular a group that’s been marginalized. Racism can be interpersonal, institutional, and even internalized, while discrimination includes attitudes, actions, and systems. Where did racism come from? Is it something society has always dealt with or did something specific lead to its creation? In this article, we’ll explore who started racism, provide five examples of racism, and describe ways to take action.

Racism is discrimination based on an individual’s or community’s race. While bigotry and social exclusion have always occurred, white Europeans and Americans created the modern concept of “race” to justify slavery. 

Where did racism come from?

To understand racism, we must first understand the concept of “race.” It’s a relatively recent development in the history of humankind. For thousands of years, people didn’t categorize humans by race. They were aware of differences and didn’t see everyone as equal, but the concept of race didn’t truly develop until the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the 16th century. Slavery had existed before, but many people worried about the practice’s moral implications. Was it acceptable to enslave other humans? When the demand for enslaved labor increased in the 17th century, white Europeans and Americans needed a justification for slavery. They found one in the form of “race.”

In an article for Time, professor Andrew Curran describes how scientists and philosophers were eager for physical, non-religious explanations for why people from Africa looked different than white Europeans. These thinkers were not only interested in science: they were searching for reasons why slavery was acceptable. Through experiments and theories now recognized as pseudoscientific, white Europeans and Americans created a racial hierarchy that put white people at the top and Black people at the bottom. Some “races” were just born to be enslaved, the scientists and philosophers argued, and it would be wrong to go against the natural order. There were also religious justifications for slavery, but the idea of “race” ran through them all.

How has racism evolved?

In 1859, the last known slave ship arrived in the United States. Five years later, slavery was abolished. Britain had already abolished slavery and effectively ended the Transatlantic Slave Trade a few years before, but racism wasn’t over. Even those who worked to abolish slavery didn’t necessarily think Black people were equal to white people; they just didn’t think slavery was good. Racism continued to inform people’s opinions of each other (and themselves), as well as immigration policy, employment policy, housing regulations, and more.

While overt racism is no longer acceptable in many societies, old policies and subconscious racism continue to fuel racial inequality. Instead of acknowledging the legacy of slavery and other injustices from the past, many people believe inequality is the result of innate racial differences. That assumes race is a biological reality, which it’s not. Modern science shows there is no biological basis for race. Race as a complex, ever-changing political and social construct is real, but there is nothing in our DNA that divides humans into racial groups.

What are five examples of racism?

Racism comes in many subtle and overt forms, so how do you recognize it when it happens? Here are five examples everyone should know about:

Claiming to not see race

Colorblind racism is based on the misconception that because race isn’t real, we shouldn’t ever think about or mention race. Race isn’t a biological reality, but it still exists as a social construct, and racism is certainly real. Those who claim to not see race often end up perpetuating microaggressions, which are unintentional acts or comments that marginalize people based on race. They can even express overtly bigoted views while claiming it’s not about race. According to a study on the effects of colorblindness in a medical setting, researchers found that physicians using a colorblind ideology are actually more likely to use race in their screening and treatment decisions. By refusing to see racism, people trying to be colorblind end up protecting it.

Using racial slurs and spreading racial stereotypes

Racial slurs and racial stereotypes are two of the clearest examples of racism. Slurs are offensive words and phrases used to degrade and discriminate against individuals or groups of people from certain racial and ethnic groups. Many slurs are widely condemned and may even constitute hate speech, which several countries have laws against. Racial stereotypes are generalized beliefs or perceptions about people based on their race, and while many are negative (i.e. certain groups are prone to violence or criminal behavior), some are more positive. Negative stereotypes can be especially harmful as they lead to discrimination, social exclusion, and psychological harm. Even positive stereotypes are still disrespectful as they project oversimplified expectations onto people.

Discriminating against people based on race

Racial discrimination is one of the most prevalent forms of racism. It refers to the unfair and prejudicial treatment of individuals or groups based on their race. Around the world, it manifests in employment, housing, education, the justice system, healthcare, and more. Racial discrimination is often subtle. Laws and actions don’t need to mention race to be discriminatory. As an example, Black girls are more likely to face extreme disciplinary actions at school in the US, but there’s no acknowledgment that it’s because of race. In 2014, a 12-year-old faced criminal charges and expulsion after writing the word “hi” on a locker, while the white female classmate who was involved got a more merciful punishment. There was no policy stating that Black girls would get harsher punishments, but it still happened. Discriminatory actions can still be discriminatory even if they don’t mention race.

Dividing society by race

Known as “racial segregation,” dividing society by race means restricting access to resources, institutions, services, and opportunities based on a person’s race. The two clearest examples are apartheid in South Africa and the Jim Crow laws in the American South. In both, Black people were forced into separate neighborhoods, schools, public facilities, and sections of public transportation. In the United States, a doctrine of “separate but equal” tried to justify this segregation, but Black Americans always got worse treatment and services. The same thing happened in South Africa. Dividing society by race with the intent to hoard resources for “superior” races and prevent race-mixing is blatantly racist. Even if things were “separate but equal,” enforced segregation is still a violation of human rights.

Eliminating people based on race

Killing someone based on their race is a hate crime. When a large number of people are killed based on their race, it’s genocide. Genocide is the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a specific ethnic group or nation with the intent to eliminate them completely. The Holocaust is a clear example of this. Because Jewish people come from a variety of racial backgrounds, they don’t belong to one race, but the Nazis defined being Jewish as a separate race. Racializing Jewish people was the first step in marginalizing and dehumanizing them. Once the Nazis had dehumanized Jews, they segregated them, isolated them from society, and then began to systematically kill them. The Holocaust represents the worst form of antisemitism, which has been around for hundreds of years. Although it existed before our modern concept of race, many experts call it the oldest form of racism.

How do you take action against racism?

Racism exists everywhere in the world. It continues to harm individuals, communities, and entire countries. What can we do about it? Here are three ways to take action:

#1. Understand what racism looks like

Understanding a problem is the first step to solving that problem. When it comes to racism, there are so many manifestations beyond blatant slurs and discrimination. Many forms of racism are completely unintentional, but that doesn’t negate their negative impact. If you want to take action against racism, you should educate yourself as much as possible. Read books, compose songs, write poems, take classes, and learn from racial justice organizations and activists who’ve spent years teaching about racism. Once you have a better understanding of racism, you can start working much more effectively toward change.

#2. Advocate for policy changes

Institutionalized racism is a complex web of policies, regulations, laws, and other systems that reinforce and perpetuate racism at every level of society. Unless these systems are changed, racism will persist even if individuals adjust their attitudes about race and racism. To take action, you can vote for progressive policies and laws, support advocacy groups, and examine regulations at your workplace, school, or other institutions you’re part of. If you’re not sure where to start, research what policy recommendations racial justice organizations are making.

#3. Commit to personal changes

Because racism is such a huge issue, it can be hard to know how to address it. At the end of the day, all you can control is yourself. Even people who don’t think they’re racist against any groups most likely harbor some subconscious biases, stereotypes, or internalized racism. Commit to making changes in your life, whether that means taking a closer look at your beliefs and interactions, or calling out racism when others express it. Levels of personal responsibility vary. If you’re a member of a marginalized group, your experiences with racism – and your need for personal changes – will be different than a white person. Too often, members of racialized groups are expected to carry the burden of ending racism on their own. Solidarity with other groups, community care, and rest are essential to long-term, sustainable progress.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.