Why We Think of Color When We Think of Race

A brief history of race as a visual construct.

Posted Jun 02, 2020

Courtesy of Vincent Tsui
Source: Courtesy of Vincent Tsui

In 1821, the Scottish Painter Patrick Syme described European skin as “flesh red.” In 1795, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach described the skin of the “Mongolian race” as “the color of sucked out and dried lemon peel.” In 1876, the Italian naturalist Odoardo Beccari described the skin of New Guinea natives as somewhere between “the numbers 28, 35, 42, and 43 [on the Broca scale].”

Today, skin color is understood as a common marker of race. But that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, the compound word “skin color,” didn’t even appear until the eighteenth century, and it was slow to catch on.

So how did skin color become such an integral part of how we think about race today?

(It would be hubris to think I could fully cover this topic in a blog post alone. Largely, I hope these broad strokes raise questions and encourage further reading.)

Complexion

For a large chunk of European history, it would have been unthinkable to call someone “white” or “black.” Not because it was offensive, but because it wouldn’t have made any sense.

To understand why, we have to step back to the origins of European medicine. In the fifth century BCE, the Greek physician Hippocrates claimed that the body contained four essential humors. These humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—were the fluids that determined a person’s health.

Lois Hague / Wellcome Collection
The four elements, four qualities, four humours, four seasons, and four ages of man.
Source: Lois Hague / Wellcome Collection

Each humor was associated with a different set of characteristics and a color. For example, black bile was sludgy, so if you had too much of it, you’d feel melancholic. Blood, on the other hand, gave you energy and vigor.

As you can imagine, blood was red. Black bile was black. Yellow bile was yellow. Phlegm was white.

When a person was healthy, their humors were relatively balanced, but in sickness, the humors got out of whack. That’s why, according to this theory, illness was accompanied by phlegm, pus, vomit, etc. The body was pushing excess humors out.

When it came to appearances, color terms didn’t refer to skin color. They referred to complexio, the combination of all those fluids within the body. If the complexio was imbalanced, it would show on the skin, as with flushed cheeks and pale faces.

That’s why no one wanted to be called “white.” Basically, being “white” meant being sick, and so did being “black,” “red,” or “yellow.”

Now when we say “complexion,” we’re referring to the color and texture of a person’s skin. But for two thousand years, complexion was more complex, or at least, it wasn’t so skin-deep.

The terms “black” and “white” (in reference to skin color) only became more common with colonial expansion and the increasing exploitation of slaves. Early Americans referred to themselves as “white” as a way to emphasize their freedom. From the beginning, these terms were tied to an imbalance of power.

The Invention of Race

Prejudices are as old as humankind, but the concept of "race" is not.

For centuries, the term “race” didn't refer to humans. Instead, it defined the qualities one wanted in a hunting or war animal (e.g., a fast race of warhorses). By the mid-sixteenth century, the term had crossed over to humankind, but it referred only to the elite. For example, the Capetians were the “third race of kings,” after the Merovingians and Carolingians.

Basically, “race” referred to lineage and inherited characteristics, not to broad human groups.

The first modern use of the term possibly appeared in 1684, in an article by the French doctor François Bernier, but few people read Bernier’s work, and the idea was slow to catch on.

“Race’s” real powder-keg moment came in 1735, when the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus published Systema Naturae.

In this book, Linnaeus divided Homo sapiens into four species: Homo europaeus, Homo americanus, Homo asiaticus, Homo africanus. Each of these species closely corresponded to one of the Greek humoral colors: Europeans were white, American Indians were red, Asians were yellow, and Africans were black.

For Linnaeus, these colors were still quasi-metaphorical. For example, there isn’t a single case in which “yellow” was used to refer to an East Asian’s skin until the nineteenth century. In Linnaeus’s time, East Asians were described as having white skin but being symbolically yellow: a color then associated with jaundice, weakness, and treachery. Over time, these terms grew increasingly literal.

Linnaeus wasn’t singlehandedly responsible for the invention of race, but he was one of its popularizers in Europe and America. Linnaeus’ system was incredibly influential, and a modified version is still used to classify plants and animals today.

Gallica / Bibliothèque nationale de France
Paul Broca's skin and eye color measurement chart (1865)
Source: Gallica / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Post-Linnaeus, spates of naturalists were eager to give their own opinions about the racial divisions of the globe. Many of these writers grounded their systems in specious “evidence” and claimed their ideas were founded in nature.

Scientific racism, or the use of empirical methods to support or justify racism, was born. And color had become a stand-in for race.

Colorism and Colorblindness

Race became so firmly anchored in skin color that now it is almost impossible to see them as separate. This color-thinking has been divisive and, since its inception, has been used to justify senseless cruelty.

If we want to undo that hatred, though, colorblindness isn’t the answer.

It would be wonderful to live in a world where skin color didn’t matter, but race is here, and we have to acknowledge it. We’ve lived with colorism for centuries, so we have to address that legacy head-on. 

People of color have formed communities, forged identities, and lived lives permeated by their “blackness,” “brownness,” and the other colors assigned to them. To suddenly try to erase color is to erase those bonds, that history, and the ways colorism lingers.

Moreover, the very notion of “colorblindness,” as applied to race, is a fallacy. The term suggests that the blind are exempt from concepts of skin color and therefore live in a world where race doesn’t matter.

However, Osagie K. Obasogie interviewed more than 150 blind people, only to find out that, overwhelmingly, they still understand race visually, just like anyone else. When asked to define race, respondents answered with physical cues like skin color, hair, eye shape, and facial features. And perhaps more importantly, they indicated that these physical assumptions shape their daily lives.

We are so steeped in this history that, even if you have the best of intentions, it is impossible to be truly “colorblind.” To correct past damage, we have to see color. We have to acknowledge history and the power of cultural assumptions.

We have to see color, and we have a responsibility to see it better than the people who lived before us.

References

Bernier, François. “A New Division of the Earth.” In Journal des sçavans (April 24, 1684). Translated by T. Bendyphe in Memoirs Read Before the Anthropological Society of London Vol 1. 1863–64, 360–64.

Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich. De generis humani varietate nativa, 3d. ed. (1795).

Boulle, Pierre H. “François Bernier and the Origins of the Modern Concept of Race.” In The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France. Edited by Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Fend, Mechthild. Fleshing out Surfaces: Skin in French Art and Medicine, 1650-1850. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.

Giglioli, Henry Hillyer. “Dr. Beccari’s Third Visit to New Guinea.” In The Geographical Magazine 3. Edited by Clements R. Markham. London: Trübner & Co., 1876.

Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Jablonski, Nina G. Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Keevak, Michael. Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Linnaeus, Carl. Systema naturae, 10th edition, volume 1. Stockholm: Laurentii Salvii, 1758. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.542

Obasogie, Osagie K. Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race through the Eyes of the Blind. Stanford, CA: Stanford Law Books, 2014.

Syme, Patrick. Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and T. Cadell, 1821.

Thorndike, Lynn. “De Complexionibus.” Isis, vol. 49, no. 4 (Dec. 1958), 398-408.