Anthropology: An Introduction to the Concept of Racism through History

Devastating, catastrophic, life-threatening, disastrous, dreadful – and simply not right in any shape or form. Those are only a few words to describe the concept and consequences of racism. And against the view of many people, the extent is way greater than expected at first glance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m anywhere near an expert on this topic, but I think it’s seriously important to do your research. No matter how small or unimportant you might feel in the grand scheme of life. And I hope I can spark a fire inside you to do the same.

What exactly is racism?

The term racism is most commonly used to describe segregation based on race. But that, sadly, is not all there is. It can generally be defined as prejudices or actions of discrimination by a single individual, a community, or an institution against a person or people based on their membership of a different group. Typically, it is one that is a minor or marginalized group. Hence, the people who execute racist behavior act on the belief that their own group is superior and more worthy.

To clarify the most common use of racism, it might be easiest to give an example: the banning of wearing headscarves as a sign of a different race and ethnicity. Racial bias is a conscious or unconscious prejudice against an individual based on their identity – a belief. Racism, then, is the transformation of a racial bias into action. Which makes the banning of wearing headscarves a racist action coming from the racial bias of it being a sign of danger.

People protesting with a yellow banner that reads “Racism is a pandemic.”
Source: Breana Panaguiton / Unsplash

History of racism

The concept of racism has a grand history, dating back to ancient Greek history. To lay out the complete timeline in detail would bust the capacity of my article, which is why I’m going to focus on the most prominent historical facts.

Origins of racism

No one knows about the actual origin of racism. There might be one, two, or many. As of now, there are only theories about the birth of this concept.

The evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides first started working on this topic when they actively thought about how ‘race’ is one of the three most used characteristics in describing people. The other two are age and sex. In the beginning of humankind, this might not have been the case. There probably was no instinct for using race as a classification, since they mostly only encountered members of their own race.

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, states in his book The Selfish Gene that any racial prejudice might not be evolutionarily adaptive, but “could be interpreted as an irrational generalization of a kin-selected tendency to identify with individuals physically resembling oneself, and to be nasty to individuals different in appearance.”

Of course, there are theories insisting on an evolutionary origin, but several clinical studies suggest an association with lower intelligence and less diverse friendship groups in sensitive learning phases. This circumstance makes the authors conclude aspects of racism can be learned. Moreover, racism has also been associated with lower childhood IQ in an analysis of 15,000 people in the UK.

This is a picture of the human brain with the amygdala marked in red.
This is a picture of the human brain with the amygdala marked in red. Credit: Life Science Database/Wikipedia


Some of the first written evidence of racism dates back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In a discussion of slavery, he stated that barbarians (aka. non-Greeks) are slaves by nature, while all true Greeks are free by nature. He does not specify any races, but he argues that any human from the outside of Greece is more predisposed to be a slave than his own people.

He does remark that most natural slaves are those with strong bodies but slave souls, meaning the unintelligent. However, he also states that the right body and soul are not always connected. This implies the soul being a determinate for slavery and racism instead of physical appearances.

This is a picture of a stone statue of Aristotle.
Source: Lysipp – Jastrow / Wikipedia

19th century

Flash forward to the 19th century. I know it’s quite a leap, but as I said, it’s hard to fit everything into one article. During this period in time, Darwin published his work On the Origin of the Species, in which he explained his evolutionary theory of natural selection. Although this theory was not specifically racist, all kinds of philosophers and social scientists took it as an excuse for genocide and racist actions. Hence, the thinking of “Social Darwinism” was born and had terrible implications.

Moreover, Robert Knox, a famous English anatomist stated the hypothesis, that race and intelligence were linked. His most harmful finding was, that people of colour had an inferior intellect. This circumstance was not true due to the smaller size of their brains, but because of a lack of nerve endings and their texture. Although it was found that his theory was solemnly based on the autopsy of one single man of color, the idea was planted into many heads.

In this picture you can see a statue of Charles Darwin at the Natural History Museum in London.
Source: Bruno Martins / Unsplash

20th century

I guess what I am going to get into now might be obvious. The German Nazi party ruled over much of Europe until the End of World War II in 1945. They perceived Germans to be part of a “master race” called Aryans. This circumstance (in their opinion) gave them the right to expand, enslave and kill those with other identities.

This ideology arranged humans on a scale from pure Aryan to non-Aryan, while the latter were perceived and treated as subhuman, or in German, ‘Untermenschen’. Hitler praised American institutional racism and many Nazis gladly used American models. In his memoir ‘Mein Kampf’ he wrote full of admiration for the treatment of “coloreds” in America. The Nazi’s two principal Nuremberg racial laws (segregation in Citizenship Law and Blood Law) were directly inspired by American citizenship and anti-miscegenation laws. In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enforced racial segregation was outlawed in the United States.

This black and white picture shows fighter jets flying during the times of World War II.
Source: Bundesarchiv / Wikipedia


Many people state that the situation around racism worldwide has been better than ever, but the separation of races continues to exist, just in different forms. These include lack of access to loans and resources or discrimination by police and other government officials.

In September of 2021, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a one-day meeting with world leaders in New York. It is to mark the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action under the theme of “Reparations, racial justice and equality for People of African Descent.”

And every year, on the 21st of March, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is celebrated worldwide. It marks the day the police in Sharpeville (South Africa) killed 69 people in open fire at a peaceful demonstration. The demonstration was against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960.

Many more people are ready to publicly raise their voices on this topic.

This is a picture of a man protesting with a sign that has “Liberty and Justice for ALL!” written in read.
Source: Logan Weaver / Unsplash

Aspects of racism

As mentioned before, discrimination based on race is not the only aspect of “modern” racism. I’m going to briefly explain other aspects in the following.

  • Aversive racism: This form of racism is hard to identify since it is subconscious. Their unconscious negative evaluations of any minority are shown in the avoidance of interaction with other groups.
  • Color blindness: This describes the ignorance of racial characteristics in social interaction. An example is the rejection of positive actions to address the consequences of past patterns of discrimination.
  • Cultural racism: This can be societal beliefs which promote the assumption that the commodities of one culture, including their language or traditions, are superior to those of another culture.
  • Economic racism: It was caused by past racism and historical reasons. Those can affect the present through deficits in education and primarily unconscious racist attitudes (including actions) towards members of the general population.
  • Institutional racism: Institutional racism is discrimination based on race by governments, corporations, educational institutions or other organizations of great power, which can influence the lives of many individuals.
  • Othering: This type of discrimination describes the process of characteristics of a group being used to distinguish them as separate from others and the norm.
  • Racial segregation: This is the separation of humans into socially-constructed racial groups in everyday life.
  • Supremacism: Colonialism was justified by the thought of “whites” being superior over others.
  • Environmental racism: It refers to racist discrimination in the implementation of environmental regulations.
  • Symbolic racism: This is a way of faking it. People outwardly act unprejudiced while inwardly maintaining prejudiced attitudes.
  • Subconscious bias: Some people claim to reject racism but might still practice race-based biases subconsciously.
This protest sign reads "Racism is a virus too."
Source: Rolande PG / Unsplash

‘Modern’ racism

This form of racism is commonly used synonymously symbolic racism. The term was first mentioned in the 1970s to describe discrimination against blacks in post-Jim Crow. With the help of this terminology, it is possible to differentiate between older forms of racism and younger forms of discrimination.

David O. Sears and P.J. Henry characterize this racism with these four specific themes or beliefs:

  • Black people no longer face much prejudice or discrimination.
  • The failure of black people to progress results from their unwillingness to work hard enough.
  • Black people are demanding too much too fast.
  • Black people have gotten more than they deserve.

The “new” form of racism is less blatant than “old-fashioned” racism, but that doesn’t make it any less real. A modern racist does not express, nor endorse, racist views or stereotypes of any sort. He believes in inclusion of all people. But on the other hand, they believe that complete racial equality has been achieved. Hence, no further actions to promote equality need to be pursued. The philosophy of maintaining the status quo is held up, since there’s no necessity to be seen in change. They perceive the “era of racism” as over.

Obvious forms of prejudice and biases are witnessed less, which makes it comfortable to settle for the belief of racism being “over”. An example of modern racism could be a person expressing prejudices by secretly judging another group’s values but disguising it as a general dislike of the value. Racism has not disappeared, but has been transformed into new types.

Critique on ‘modern’ racism

It has been conceptualized and measured inconsistently over time. Sometimes consisting of a single construct and others consisting of multiple dimensions. Nowadays, most people describe modern or symbolic racism as being composed of the four components listed by Tarman and Sears. They both state that defining it as based on those four themes will eliminate the inconsistency problems.

Many signs from a Black Lives Matter demonstration. One that sticks out reads "Silence is oppression".
Source: Kalea Morgan / Unsplash

Where to educate

If you don’t have a clue about where to start educating yourself, I totally get it, it can be overwhelming. However, it is important to do your research with the help of valid and trustworthy sources. I hope the following listings can make it a little easier for you.

Ted Talks

  • The danger of a single story: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the challenges and limitations of reducing people to a single story defined by their colour, race, gender, and more.
  • We need to talk about injustice: Bryan Stevenson outlines the history of slavery and the false narrative of people of color, particularly Black people, being inferior to whites. The result being the over-incarceration of Black men in the U.S.


Moreover, this article might interest you. It is about the increase in prejudice due to the pandemic.



  • The Obama Foundation: Former president Barack Obama and his wife Michele started this foundation with links to projects that focus on police violence and anti-racism to create a more equitable world.
  • Project Implicit: This nonprofit organization concentrates on thoughts and feelings outside of our conscious awareness and control.
This picture shows a person working at a laptop.
Source: Sergey Zolkin / Unsplash

Cultural Significance in Anthropology 

To say it in Layla F. Saad’s words, “What we see as observable physical differences among people of ‘different’ races are actually just different genotype and phenotype expressions among one race – the human race.”

It is important to know about the extent and consequences of all types of racism to truly understand what is going on (and most importantly: what is going wrong) in our society. I hope this article can give you an insight into the topic and make you more aware of the difficulties some of us have to face. Racism expands to segregation due to race, socioeconomic status, gender, age, heritage, religion, and many more. Finally, studying human behavior and the causes of racism can have beneficial effects such as fewer hate crimes, increased survivability, and evolution of human perception from outdated historical thought processes. 

Feature image source: James Eades / Unsplash

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