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White people who lived in tropical climates became darker skinned, seemingly affirming this idea, though rather more puzzling was the fact that Africans who traveled to Europe remained “black.” The etymology of the word “race” helps to demonstrate its flexible usage.Entering the English language in the sixteenth century from the medieval Italian word “razza” (meaning “group”), “race” was simply a method of classifying any number of things—human, animal, or plant—into groups with ostensibly shared characteristics.The Arab overlords of North Africa generally believed that sub-Saharan darker-skinned peoples were culturally and intellectually inferior, mocking their “wisdom, ingenuity, religion, justice and regular government,” and they imported those attitudes with the conquest of most of Spain in the eighth century.8 During the long Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula by the Christian kings of Castile and Aragon these negative stereotypes crossed over the cultural divide between Muslim and Christian.Winthrop Jordan was perfectly correct to point out the negative connotations of the word “black” in early modern English, and other tongues, and that people with black skin in effect suffered by association because of it, but the roots of European racism went even deeper than that.9 There is a clear lineage of negative racial imagery from Arabic to Hispanic to English thought.As historians of European expansionism have shown, race was not always synony mous with skin color.In the early modern period, when light-skinned Europeans started to come into regular contact with dark-skinned sub-Saharan Africans, they placed just as much significance on dress, religion, customs, language, and degree of civilization as they did on skin color.- Moreover, Mark Smith has recently argued that race was not only determined visually but could also be sensed by noses, ears, fingers, and even tongues.3 Clearly there were many different ways tor Europeans to mark the differences between themselves and the new peoples they encountered.Yet Europeans were not so foolish as to try to treat all Africans the same, whatever they might have believed about their own elevated status, since the) were acutely conscious that without the goodwill of local chiefs and princes their ships would have found trade goods as well as basic supplies hard to come by.Pragmatism, if nothing else, required that early modern Europeans responded to Africans on a case-by-case basis.
A notable exception to this generality was the demarcation of Jews as a racial group by the Nazis.
English trader Bartholomew Stibbs, visiting the Gambia River in 1723, remarked, without apparent irony, that the local inhabitants were “as Black as Coal; tho’ here, thro’ Custom, (being Christians) they account themselves White Men.”1 It was equally possible for whites to “go native” by adopting African lifestyles.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, skin color was often perceived to be a simple result of the degree of exposure to the sun.
Yet, as biologists and geneticists have conclu- sivelv shown, there is only one human race, with the degree of genetic difference among whites tire same as between whites and blacks, or between any so-called “racial group.” When scholars use “race” as a useful category of historical inquiry they are not suggesting that white people and black people, for instance, belong to different species.
Instead they are concerned with the sociological meanings of race, whereby racial terms only have meaning because individuals or groups either attribute a significance to the differences between themselves and others, or impose such a significance on others.