What is this thing we call race? Where did the idea come from? “Race: The Power of an Illusion” investigates race in society, science, and history.
Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses modern and historical concepts of race.
When I say that our sort of modern concept of race is, I think, essentially the product of the confluence of thoughts about peoplehood that are old and thoughts about biology that are new, I don't mean that the word race is new. In The Jew of Malta, Barabas says, But say the race that I descended of Were all in general cast away for sin, Shall I be tried by their transgression? That's Christopher Marlowe, in the time of Shakespeare.
So the word race is there, and it's being used in that case by a Jewish character to refer to what he is, to say, my race. But it doesn't—so we read that with our modern understanding and we think, oh, so these are—but race there means—he could just as well have said if it had fitted with the meter of the verse, the people or the group or the—which would have fitted with the meter—or the kind.
The idea that—what's important in that way of thinking is just that it's something that you—it's a group you belong to, and you belong to the same group as your parents if your parents both belong to that group, to some group. But that's all. But that doesn't yet imply anything about why you and your parents are the same. It could just be because there's a law. A law of the state. It has nothing at all to do with biology. Or it could just be that God fixes it that way, that God says I have a covenant with the descendants of this man, Abraham.
So we read back into these earlier texts in which the word race occurs. We read back our understanding. Of course we do. What else could we do? We have to start from where we are. But in order to understand these earlier texts properly, we do have to begin by recognizing that though they used some of our words, and they did use our word race, they didn't understand it in the way that we do.
Race, I think, still for a modern hero in English, you kind of think, well, so your doctor should know what race you are. Or the professors of biology should be able to tell you what race you are. We sort of think of it as belonging to a science. It doesn't. That is, the actual categories that we use in our social life don't correspond to anything of any biological interest at all. There are, of course, biological ways of classifying human beings. But they don't map onto the ones that actually do the work in our social life.