When I was in the 6th grade I can recall having a heated discussion with several other kids about the non-existence of race. It would start with the question of what race you were, a trick question because I knew there was no such thing as race. I would then proceed to point this out to them, which earned me funny looks and occasionally name calling. On days when I was feeling sassy I would whip out the old standby in response to this quesiton: human. I have no idea where I learned that there was no such thing as race, I just know that by the time I was in the 6th grade this concept had somehow been introduced to me.

Since then I have often stumbled over the question on applications for jobs, scholarships, you name it if it has a form there is a selection box asking for your race. A few institutions have realized the error and switched the wording to ethnicity, but many plow on with their tired application forms never getting updated. This usage of race and ethnicity as interchangeable terms is a constant problem. Before you can really understand how race operates in contemporary society you need to know how it evolved in the first place.

The idea of race, which is regularly confused with ethnicity, was developed in the 18th century. Often people believe that in order for one group to dominate over another they use racial qualities, however what they really use are ethnic qualities. When the English were colonizing the New World they began developing new attitudes about other groups, specifically about the native Americans whom they were having a hard time assimilating. Prior to this they had decided that people were born into their roles, that blacks were born to be slaves and so should be treated thusly. The blacks they enslaved had not been efficient at revolting against such treatment and eventually fell “in line” as servants to the whites. The native Americans were not so easily enslaved. They resisted servitude and in many cases fought back violently enough to stun their would-be-captors. The inability to easily dominate over another group seen as being inherently ‘less’ sparked a change in attitude. Natives became labeled as ‘savages’ and occasionally ‘noble savages.’

Two centuries earlier the Irish, who’ve had a long history with the English, began to be labeled in a ‘savage’ way as well. Their hatred of the Irish culture had the English labeling them as an ‘other.’ Racism, and therefore race, emerged as a way to label the hated ‘other’ and classify them socially. In black/white relationships in North America this social classification was used to separate black rights from white rights using legislation in the 1600s that applied stiff penalties for ‘fornicating’ with blacks and formalized their servitude as well as the use of corporal punishment. In the 1700s this was deepened using the concept of what is ‘natural’ and what isn’t. It became unnatural to fornicate or intermarry with those outside your ‘race,’ especially blacks. The increase in racist legislation at this time was reflective of an increase in US born politicians who wanted to secure their holdings by controlling the growing number of servants and slaves. By the 1800s the creation of race insured that even poor whites had more rights than blacks did.

Even monuments and memorials play a part in the social divide caused by race. Monuments erected during the Jim Crow era were used to further subordinate blacks by not just commemorating generals and other military personnel during the Civil War but also “faithful slaves.’ In the case of the Heyward Shepherd monument in Harpers Ferry the memorial was used as a vehicle to villianze John Brown. Brown tried to incite a slave rebellion so they could defeat the southern invaders and then move south to free more slaves. His effort failed when no blacks came to his aid and he was hung. Heyward Shepherd was a free black that lived and worked in the area and was, incidentally, the first person killed in the raid. Southerners legitimized slavery by memorializing those that “did not rebel against their masters” and Heyward Shepherd fulfilled this role at Harpers Ferry.


Shackel, Paul. 2003 Memory in Black and White: Race, Commemoration, and the Post-Bellum Landscape. Altamira Press.

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