S2 E2: How Race Was Made

March 1, 2017

For much of human history, people viewed themselves as members of tribes or nations but had no notion of “race.” Today, science deems race biologically meaningless. Who invented race as we know it, and why? By John Biewen, with guest Chenjerai Kumanyika.


Photo: The Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal. The highlighted figure in the center is an effigy of Gomes Eanes de Zurara. The figure at the top right is Prince Henry the Navigator. Photo by Harvey Barrison.

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36 comments on “S2 E2: How Race Was Made

  1. Janet bland Apr 21, 2017

    I find your podcast extremely informative and feel very fortunate to be a listener.

  2. Shelly Musgrove May 3, 2017

    The slavery still exists on every social level.
    How do we change the balance of power?

  3. Excellent commentary

  4. There is one race – the human race. Anything else is pigmentation.

  5. Tom Wyllie May 4, 2017

    So, graduating from high school in 1972, most of the history here was retold with a similar bias. Looking back to my college Western Political Thought class, there is not a difference so much in facts as in this podcast’s focus on the intent of Aristotelian and later philosophers’ purpose in attempting to define truths about the nature of man and societies, There seems to be cherry picking on the podcast’s point of view. Most of the ancient and medieval philosophers can be found to espouse ideas which support any position. Well, that’s true of them all if their writings survived in bulk. My understanding is that it was the German Enlightenment philosophers who believed and promulgated the belief that white Europeans conquered the world because they were superior. Their thinking, however, seems to have been adopted by the English in their views and treatment of the Irish deemed inferior as a species. In the mid Nineteenth Century, millions of Irish fleeing famine, arrived in the North as indentured servants. Slaves. For a limited time, it is sure, but slaves. The same attitude is portrayed in “The Jungle”; but for a different white ethnic group. In understanding the history of racial prejudice in the USA, it is, imo, necessary to require a common denominator in historical fact and political disenfranchisement for both Southern Blacks and their Northern counterparts. That denominator offers important clues. maybe not decisive clues, but thought s to ponder. We live in dangerous times, exciting times.

    • Kristin Sep 19, 2017

      I disagree about the idea that slavery and indentured servitude are equal. I’ve heard people make this false equivalency to undermine the “black lives matter” movement or to weaken the threat of white supremacy. Indentured servitude was a contract to repay or settle debt. Once freed, they could own property and many went on to own slaves. The Irish were not captured, kidnapped, sold as property, raped and bred like livestock to improve the owner’s stock. Indentured servants were granted their freedom per the contract. Slaves were property in perpetuity unless freed by their owner.

      • Kristin is right – there is a difference between slavery and indentured servitude.

        And, there’s also a difference between slavery and chattel slavery. Chattel slavery, unique to North America, the Caribbean, and Latin America from the 15th to the 18th century, was the complete removal of a slave’s human rights. Their slave status was passed on to their offspring (this was not the case under slave systems in antiquity), and they could not self-manumit (slaves in other systems could pay for their freedom). There are other unique differences that escape my memory, but just keep in mind that the slavery practiced throughout history was not the same as chattel slavery in the “new” world.

    • i think this is political trash sorry

  6. Very informative thank you. Yes these are scholars ive read and need to be read by the masses. I hope to spread the word of this show to the best of my ability. Hey Chenjerai it’s been a minute.

  7. Marvin Jefferson May 5, 2017

    Excellent! We need more of this!
    Thank You!

  8. Patricia Trujillo Oviedo Aug 5, 2017

    Great podcast! Enlightening…

  9. Rosemary Adaser Aug 30, 2017

    Brilliant series, comprehensive in it’s scope and gently explored by a range of learned people from all ‘ethnicities’ (better watch my language!), should be compulsory in all European and USA schools.

  10. Linda Swayze Aug 31, 2017

    I was introduced to this series through co-workers and all I can say is WOW…… what an eye opener. I can’t wait to hear the other episodes. Great work to all connected to the project!

  11. Yes, this is well deserved information that all academia secondary classes need to use. I’m excited about this podcast. As an African American woman I am appreciative of this discussion and speaking truth to power.
    Thank you .

  12. Michael Nurse Nov 4, 2017

    Fantastic piece. It’s so difficult to make these concepts about race seem valid to many who insist that racism is all about making someone who looks different feel bad about themselves. The actual meat of the concept tends to be resolutely hidden by a determination to do everything with zero power to adequately address the problem. The structural framework for oppression is unequal power and the motivations to exploit the vulnerable and then to embellish this exploitative arrangement with racial mythology and stereotypes. Then so long as society is oriented to be sustained by the system of benefits, the apathy, denials, deflections and outlandish physical and verbal abuses manifests to solidify the psychological conflict. The physical manifestation of the unconscious challenges to the ideal sense of self. The disassociated emotions of the subconsciously unaware. Resisting this ever looming awareness of injustice, which is in conflict with their conscience informed by judeochristian values and morals. The greater the cognitive dissonance, the greater the forcefulness of the motivation to resolve the conflict by avoidance, discrimination (to be separated from the triggers) the victims of the abuse. The need to save the ego (fractured by the reality of immortality) by projecting this immortality into their victims. The unity among thieves ‘so to speak’ giving honour to themselves for sharing in the guilt and unified suffering of the guilty by association. The mass ingested poison of white supremacy, and the resultant death of humanity under white skin.

  13. Absolutely fabulous and fascinating and important content. And very well produced, in addition. This gives me plenty to chew on, without having heard any other parts of the series yet.

  14. David Machemer Dec 15, 2017

    Wow! Brilliant concept: exploring racism by addressing the (white) elephant in the room – the water in which we swim, but which is all but invisible to us.
    Very insightful. I am already hooked and will definitely listen to all the episodes now.

  15. Everton Collins Jan 4, 2018

    Absolutely first class material. This should be forwarded to Steve Bannon and Mr. Trump as well as made available to every elementary school school in the US.

  16. Toni Chew Jan 9, 2018

    I’m an old white woman. My most valued assets are the intellectual and spiritual tools by which I think and act. This series, “Seeing White” is putting entirely innovative tools in my hands, enabling me to speak a language which communicates my hope for humanity’s advancing maturity.

  17. Rand Naefe Jan 30, 2018

    Incredible! You really need to listen over and over to comprehend how backwards our knowledge is.

  18. Amy JOhnson Feb 11, 2018

    Where can I get my “On crazy, we built a nation” bumper sticker?

  19. Dana Friedel Feb 12, 2018

    Very insightful. Thank you for all your hard work.

  20. varsty muhammad Feb 18, 2018

    Excellent show! A very much needed discussion. Thank you!

  21. Dale Strayhorn Feb 25, 2018

    Extraordinarily informative-thought provoking-All people in America should listen to. What encouraged you to create these podcasts? Thanks a million for your efforts!

  22. Thank you so much for this show!

  23. Patrick May 3, 2018

    Working geneticist here.

    While there is no information stemming from genetics that would justify racism, the oft touted statement that genetics demonstrates that there is no such thing as biological race is incorrect and not something that anyone working in population genetics actually thinks anymore. Though the term race is certainly vague and unhelpful scientifically, with populations being used instead, usually along geographic lines.

    When the human genome project was completed the idea that race had no biological corollary emerged from the minute amounts of human genetic diversity detected, this was also being found in related projects. Today however you can sequence a small proportion of a persons genome and determine with surprising precision where their ancestors hail from, hence ancestry.com.

    Susanne from the anti-racism workshop’s statement to the effect that she was more likely to be genetically similar to someone of a different race was based on a complete misunderstanding of the fact that there is greater genetic diversity between individuals within a group than between groups themselves, this fact is not a statement about the genetic differences between individuals from different groups.

    None of this information presents a challenge to the moral and historical lessons of this series, but it does make me question the rigour of the content checking, particularly when it comes to seemingly convenient or inconvenient information.

  24. This white and black stuff has got to stop! There seems to be more racism these days than all the years I was in school during the 60’s and 70’s. We didn’t deal with all this mess even in the 80’s and 90’s. My brother was beginning High School in 1980 and he was bussed to an all black school and they bullied him 4 to 1 and took his lunch money. How am I suppose to take that? Oh, that’s just an isolated incidence?! Well, that happened to real life and in real time. I”m sure my brother was scared. I guess the blacks were also scared when we took their lunch in 1968 when they got bussed to .our brand-new school, afterwhich we were also bussed to this brand-new school. It was an experiment the government was doing to intergrate the schools during 1968: not too pretty, blacks and whites going to school together. The years previous to ’68 we had one black in our school, he was the janitors’ son. Nobody bothered him and not because of being the son of a person working there, just noone bothered him. I’d like to have seen what would have happened to a white kid in 8th grade at an all black school in 1968. I’m ashamed at what they did to my younger brother, taking his lunch money and all. I don’t really think blacks wanted to be intergrated anymore than we did, they’d just wanted a fair shake at life like the rest of us. We didn’t see skin color back then nor did we all the way to 1999. It’s all come about in this millenium. One day at work we were talking about racism and someone was saying that this person had done some racist and the guy said, “I can’t be a racist, I’m black!” We all just burst out laughing but you know today if someone white even grunts the wrong the wrong way, he’s a racists. Whites are being branded terribly and noones taking up for us. Whites don’t complain about comic blacks hollering honky, whitey or crackr on tv. We’d be branded RACIST if we did. Blacks don’t seems to always be proud to be black. They want to change Negro to 3 or 4 other identitys. Like on my med sheet, I check caucasian, whereas everyone else is something else, Blacks are african american even when they’re from jamaica, Indians are native american. Today, blacks want to be people of color. Sooner than later, it’ll be shortened to colored. How close is that to colored? but they don’t like that or african american anymore. It’s “person of color.” Blacks have made their own race, Negro, bad name. It doesn’t make sense and it doen’t make the N word go away either. These rappers with nigga and nigga that they need to be a better influence for the younger kids, whites and blacks cause today they got the power. If they don’t then don’t whine about it or cry racist when thing go awry.

    • Rangi May 6, 2020

      there is a massive difference between structural and institutional racism and individual bias… also why would you bemoan what POC call themselves they can define themselves as they see fit, i don’t see many whites calling themselves Caucasians they call themselves Americans regardless if their ancestry is from in Europe. and yes ‘this black and white stuff has got to stop’, thats the purpose of the series lol…

  25. Sheila and Jack Giesler Jul 14, 2018

    This is very interesting, and makes sense to us. I know religion, as an institution, has not been kind to the concepts of “Race” you’re exploring here. I’m thinking of “Fundamentalist” friends who relate to this “common ancestor” as the Christian character “Adam”. How would that fit with your teachings?

  26. Rick Fabbro Jul 25, 2018

    I have been looking for a series like this for a long time. Thank you for putting together a considered and academic understanding of racism.

  27. This is a wonderful educational experience.

  28. Ellen Ochs Feb 20, 2020

    everyone everyone needs to listen to this.

  29. Christina Apr 2, 2020

    Brilliant, thank you so much for the work 🙂

  30. Muoi Sau Apr 13, 2020

    Very informative podcast! I have learned a lot about racism throughout this podcast.

  31. Mary Hollingsworth Apr 17, 2020

    very enlightening, finding black people living live animals, as that is how they learned to survive, in my opinion . Perhaps is why the were treated and thought of as not human when brought to other countries as slaves.