No, Europeans did not “invent” racism.

Anti-racism activists often claim that the concept of race was invented by Europe during the Renaissance: “The concept of race was invented by Europeans in order to enforce systemic discrimination against minorities. Racism is a learned social behaviour propagated predominantly by white European culture.”

Assuming that the definition of racism used today by many anti-racists is true (a policy or system of government, of discriminatory enforcement), it is still not true that Europeans invented racism. George M. Fredrickson claims “No clear and unequivocal evidence of racism has been found in other cultures or in Europe before the Middle Ages. The identification of the Jews with the devil and witchcraft in the popular mind of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was perhaps the first sign of a racist view of the world.”

This is an abject untruth, if not a total lie. Aristotle referred to the Persians as barbarians that are slaves to their emotions and impulses by nature. The term barbarian (from barbaros, Greek) was used by Greeks to refer to other cultures “especially the Athenians, to deride other Greek tribes and states (such as Epirotes, Eleans, Macedonians, Boeotians and Aeolic-speakers) but also fellow Athenians, in a pejorative and politically motivated manner.”

In 91 B.C. Sima Qian (司马迁) wrote in the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) about the Xiongnu (匈奴) tribe that “they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. This seems to be their in-born nature.” as a way of contrasting them with his own civilised Han Chinese.

In the 600s A.D. Han Chinese author Yan Shigu (顏師古) wrote in his commentary on the classical Hanshu (汉书) that the Wusun people, a neighbouring tribe that lived in Gansu, had green eyes and red hair and described them as barbarians that looked like macaque monkeys.

In 760 A.D. Chinese rebels massacred Arab and Persian merchants in their thousands in Yangzhou. “The foreign merchants and traders incurred xenophobic feelings among the Chinese population, and they were scapegoated… were targeted for being foreign and for their wealth”. Another pogrom on foreign merchants took place in Guangzhou in 878, this time killing 120,000.

In the year 779 of the Tang Dynasty, the government passed an edict requiring Uighur men to wear their native costume in the capital and forbade them from marrying Han Chinese women. Similarly in 836, the governor of Canton, Lu Chun, was disgusted by “foreigners” marrying Chinese women, along with the overall lack of segregation. So he passed a law banning interracial marriages and foreigners from owning land.

When the Mongols invaded China and set up the Yuan Dynasty, they also divided the races into a caste hierarchy with Mongols, Semuren, northern and southern Chinese occupying different rungs of an oppression ladder. But this would coincide with the time when, according to people like Fredrickson, Europeans were busy “inventing” racism.

I hope my point has been made. Clearly Europeans did not invent racism. Even when you’re using a definition of racism concocted specifically to pin the blame of racism on Europeans. I think this statement summarises the truth of the matter: “Ethnographic literature reveals that ethnocentrism seems to be a cultural universal by default.”

Viewing other tribes as inferior (e.g. less intelligent and more impulsive) clearly satisfies the same definition of racism as an association of Jews with the devil, in that both are to associate a foreign tribe with negative things. It’s funny that Fredrickson first says that racism is a system where one group seeks to dominate another, and then in the next sentence, calls the association of Jews with the devil the first example of racism that ever existed. So which thing is the racism, the negative association, or the system that is built upon it?

It’s actually neither. These “systems” enforced against other groups of people, or negative descriptions of other tribes, aren’t the real root of racism anyway, as anti-racism activists claim they are.

I am not denying that racism can be defined as a system of oppression against people who are different: in fact there are multiple definitions of racism, and which one you prioritise depends on your political stance. gives the following definitions of racism:
“noun 1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such doctrine; discrimination.
3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.”
Wikipedia further clarifies that: “Today, the use of the term “racism” does not easily fall under a single definition.”
But if racism has these separate definitions, then what is the root of racism? It manifests as an attitude that thinks of people of different biological heritage differently and only on the basis of that different heritage.

The brain must have somewhere a clear representation of reacting differently to people based on their origin. Implicit-association tests during brain scans are able to form associations between brain activity in specific areas and perception of other people. People feel less empathy for people not in their own group, measured as asymmetrical activation of the left and right prefrontal cortices (Gutsell and Inzlicht 2012). Oxytocin, a neurotransmitter in the brain, is known to promote in-group favouritism and, to a lesser extent, out-group derogation (De Dreu 2010).
Stereotyping against outgroups appears to be mediated by heightened left temporal and frontal lobe activity, which contrasts with immediate bias against individual outgroup members, which is associated with amygdala activation (Amodio 2009). The reason stereotyping does not coincide with higher amygdala activity may be because the right lateral prefrontal cortex inhibits this activity. Affective bias (personal negative reaction to others who look different) however, is regulated by the medial prefrontal cortex, which represents social knowledge and regulates social responses.
The inhibition of immediate racial bias through the prefrontal cortex also appears to be lessened after exposure to negative stereotyping of other such people, resulting in higher amygdala activity (Forbes 2012). Differing responses of the amygdala to outgroups versus ingroups are a consistent feature among races of people (Lieberman 2005, Hart 2000, Fu 2014), demonstrating that the neural circuits of racism do not exist only in white people.

These studies demonstrate associations between exposure to people who look different on the basis of origin and activity in certain brain areas, which demonstrates that racism is not “invented” or socially constructed, and does in fact exist at the brain-level. Strictly speaking, they do not demonstrate a causal mechanism; they do not prove that racism has its genesis the brain, but the mere fact that exposure to out-groups elicits activation in specific brain areas and not others, and the fact that we know our actions and opinions originate in our brains is evidence enough that racism does come from the brain and this applies to all human beings.

Some have claimed that “the true definition has more to due with power and how it pertains to race”, by which they may be referring to systemic oppression, but this is too vague to tell and not specific enough to argue against.

Well, yes Katrina, there is a “default” sense in which everyone is racist: all people have the in-born capacity for what’s at the root of racism. However since you’re conceding that all people have prejudice (if that’s what we’re calling the root of some discriminatory psychological process that results in racism), then your only recourse to make a claim that sounds as ridiculous as “only white people can be racist” would be to show white people do something to others none others do, and as I’ve shown here, non-white societies have engaged in “systemic racism”.

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