“Race” – A brief historical summary of the word and it’s use from 1600’s to Darwin


A follow up on the blog post titled Race- A Word to Kill.

The goal of this post is to show how hatred towards people over differences and superiority did not start with American chattel slavery or the Jim Crow era. The evils of slavery, as well as the harm to people of color that occurred during reconstruction were consequences of what was already in the sinful hearts of man. For some reason, there seems to be a fixation, outside and especially inside the church, to look back in American history at certain points to explain current societal trends of behavior. When our scope is limited to American history exclusively, division and finger pointing will be an obvious consequence. If we are going to look at history to explain our current condition, we will need to not only go further back in history, but also widen the scope. To get a broader picture of what has happened behaviorally and cognitively in humanity we must take off our American lenses and refrain from looking at the problems that arose during the forming of our country to explain the concept of superiority in culture, as though we are the center of the universe. Our country, past and present, is not the global litmus test to determine and define hate and evil. Until we are able to do that, only then will we be able to see the magnitude of our human condition.

There might be some that will question the motive of looking at the origin of words, when historically, there have been some that have done serious harm to people of color. Some might question the purpose of looking at how a word changed throughout history, when there are real people, in real time, dealing with the effects of privilege, class and superiority ideology. Some might consider looking at language and word usage as meaningless and almost a deflection of the current climate in our country.

As people of color, we should never discount the pain and damage done by certain demographics. We should never try to minimize harm nor should we make attempts to deflect that harm. This post is simply a way to think about how to react to and process our current cultural tensions regarding the word “race”.

Our emotions will always dictate how we respond to any given situation. It does not take much for our feelings, thoughts, and emotions to be hijacked by the anger we have towards perceived injustices. We immediately, due to our respective social media outlets, respond in that anger and jump on certain platforms in order to relieve that pent up frustration that seems to mimic a pot of stew, sitting on the back burner of a stove top, simmering, slow and steady. Other than having our emotions operating on a chronic steady level of anger and frustration, ruminating, waiting for that next injustice, is there another way to respond? If so, how and where can we redirect our thoughts? Are there other perspectives or bits of information that we can wrestle with to apply to our hearts and minds, as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, that reflects we are people of the Book, trusting in a Sovereign God, in spite of the discriminatory inclinations of sinful man.

To give an example of how word usage actually plays out, a couple of years ago, the word “woke” was the past tense and past participle of “wake”. It was simply used in every day speech to refer to someone who had been literally asleep, as in eyes closed, body relaxed and unconscious. Today, there is a new meaning to the word “woke”. Yes, it is still being used as the past tense of wake but there is a new acceptable use of the word. In the Merriam-Webster’s series, Words We’re Watching, we can find a brief synopsis on the word “woke”.

“Woke” is increasingly used as a byword for social awareness. It can be hard to trace slang back to its origins since slang’s origins are usually spoken, and it can be particularly difficult to trace a slang word that has its origins in a dialect. Woke’s transformation into a byword of social awareness likely started in 2008, with the release of Erykah Badu’s song “Master Teacher”:

Stay woke became a watch word in parts of the black community for those who were self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better. But stay woke and woke became part of a wider discussion in 2014, immediately following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke. Like many other terms from black culture that have been taken into the mainstream, woke is gaining broader uses. It’s now seeing use as an adjective to refer to places where woke people commune: woke Twitter has very recently taken off as the shorthand for describing social-media activists.

One of our editors, Darrell Harrison, wrote a very poignant and much needed article on how the word “woke” is affecting the black church today.

If the word “woke” can be redefined of its meaning in a matter of a few years due to how people are using it, we can then begin to see how usage of words actually have the power to change people, not only cognitively but behaviorally as well.

Seeing the value of looking deeply at how the word “race” has changed in meaning, especially historically, maybe we can then begin to make those connections in our minds that allow us to see how word usage can become fuel to how people behave and treat one another, especially when it’s void of gospel power for unity. Since language is a part of humanity and culture, past and present, we cannot ignore the aspect of how words play into our thinking, our behaviors, and our treatment of others.

A Brief Historical Summary of the Word “Race”- from 1600’s to Darwin

According an online etymological dictionary, which is a dictionary that does not necessarily define a word, but rather explains how words have been used throughout the ages, the word “race” first showed up in the 1300’s (Middle English) as a way to explain a contest of some sort, where speed was involved, which would make sense Biblically. The few times the word race is used in the Bible it is in regards to a contest where speed is required or running in a contest where there is more than one player vying for a prize of some sort (Jer 12:5, Eccl 9:11, 1 Cor 9:24, 2 Tim 4:7, Heb 12:1).

The first time the word “race” was defined in any academic or scholarly print form was in 1606 and again 1694 in a French dictionary, the Dictionnaire de l’Academie Francaise, which would have been the equivalent of our Oxford English Dictionary. In both, the word race was officially defined as one’s lineage in relation to family lines, or breeds of animals.

Some where along the historical time line, it is unclear how and why the word “race” showed up in 16th century writing to denote breed of animals or family line. This is mere speculation but it is possible that due to the favored pastime or forms of entertainment during the Middle Ages where sports or hunting contests that involved animals took place, it makes sense to deduce that the animals who did well or won many contests in hunting escapades were considered of “good race”. Which would explain why 16th century French scholars folded into the original word definition of race (a contest) with characteristics of those who won many races, (good stock) in a family line of animals.

In 1735, Carolus Linnaeus developed a biological classification system for plants and animals based on geographical location, Systema Naturae. This ordering and classifying of nature led to other scholars incorporating the idea of ordering and classifying not just plants and animal, but humans as well. Linnaeus never used the word “race.” in any of his writing, interestingly. Linnaeus’s work was celebrated, with many of his contemporaries declaring “God created nature, but Linnaeus arranged it”.

In 1756, the word race was used again in the same context and definition as the one used in the 1694 French dictionary,  but a new element, “noble race”, was added to the original definition. Interestingly, it was at this time that the word race opened the door for humanity to be nuanced into the word race, which would make sense due to the 1700’s class distinctions of the aristocracy that became the norms of culture and society. The idea of a “noble race” began circulating in social circles as well as scientific ones.

Two years later, Linnaeus theorized that there should be four subcategories of humans: Americanus; Asiaticus; Africanus; and Europeanus, though he did not necessarily coin the term “race” to explain why he differentiated humans. Nevertheless, it was another log in the fire to go in the direction of using the word “race” exclusively for differences in people.

Up until that time period during the Enlightenment, the word “race” still did not have our modern negative connotations attached to it and it certainly was not used to explain the discrimination and superiority that is invoked regarding who had more or less melanin in their skin. Of course, this is not to say that scholars, naturalists, and scientists were not using our modern characteristics and assumptions of the word “race” to many, if not all, of their theories and observations. However, instead of the word “race”, they were using “species”.

According to Nicholas Hudson, a former professor of history at the University of British Columbia writes, “there was not a modern concept of race that existed in the 18th century that resembled the modern sense of a subdivision of the human species, identified by a shared appearance and other inherited traits”.

He further writes “the changing meaning of the term “race”, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment marked particularly by the use of the term “race” to describe larger populations. Travel literature of the 17th century contains a wealth of detailed description of innumerable “nations” in the non-European world. Writers of the Enlightenment, on the contrary, were more inclined to dismiss these national differences as insignificant, and to describe “Americans”, “Negroes”, or other continental groups of “races” with essentially common traits of body and mind. Significantly, “race” and “nation” derive from the same concept of “lineage” or “stock”. Yet it was “race” that ultimately became the major term of ethnographic scholarship, while “nation” was reserved to describe political and social divisions of Europe. “Tribe” in turn was, increasingly used to replace “nation” in description of “savages” of peoples outside of Europe”

In 1779, Johann Blumenbach, a German scientist, doctor, physiologist and anthropologist was the first one who determined a class/order system that was “race” people based. He paved the way and established the framework of looking at humanity through the lens of analyzing differences of outward characteristics in people. In looking at differences, he theorized that the humans needed to be divided into five “races”, not four species.



  • the Caucasian or white race.
  • the Mongolian or yellow race, including all East Asians and some Central Asians.
  • the Malayan or brown race, including Southeast Asian and Pacific Islanders.
  • the Ethiopian or black race, including sub-Saharan Africans.
  • the American or red race, including American Indians

Naturally, once Blumenbach’s five categories were published, various anthropologists put their own race categories in print form, ranging anywhere from three to dozens. Nonetheless, it was Blumenbach’s categorization that would stand the test of time, in popularity and scientifically. The use of the word “Caucasian” to define people of Europe, Europaeus, is still used today.

It was Blumenbach’s theories that legitimized, or in essence, put a “stamp of approval” for chattel slavery to continue, without questioning the depravity of it, in the newly independent United States. Scientists, scholars, anthropologists, and naturalists had slowly and methodically created systems of categorizing (taxonomy) that they enthusiastically applied to nature, congratulating themselves for such a feat. This allowed for the possibility of using those same systems into which humans could also be categorized, where by they began testing the scientific waters by using the word “race” to describe various people groups.

There may not have been a published modern definition of the word race, but scholars in the science fields began to move in that direction. One of those scholars was David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, who wrote in the footnotes of his 1754 essay, Of Natural Characters,

I am apt to suspect the Negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white”.

In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, we start to see a dramatic shift in thought and understanding of the word race. The classifying of people into races eventually turns into issues of superiority of one race over others due to who was more civilized and or more “cultured”.

Immanuel Kant, who is said to be the originator of the theory of the view of race and the father of the hierarchical ordering of man, wrote in his 1788, Teleological Principles in Philosophythe Americans (Native Americans) are incapable of all cultivation (culture) and stand even far below the Negro, who after all occupies the lowest of the remaining grades we have called racial differences”.

In a later edition of the same work, he further writes “the Negro, while not capable of any further civilization, seem perhaps to rank above Americans (Native Americans) in as much as they have instinct and discipline, which Americans lack”.

Robert Knox, was a Scottish anatomists, zoologist, ethnologist and surprisingly an abolitionist who wrote “race or hereditary descent is everything, it stamps the man”, giving rise to the inclination that a person’s race or family lineage determined a man’s worth. Basically, if you came from a good family line, you were worth more in society than those who did not. Sadly, there are some Americans, even American Christians who still cling to this false identity of worth in regards to family line or family heritage.

Knox wrote some widely popular books that began to reinforce the concept that certain ethnic groups or people groups were more superior than others. His book, The Races of Men (1850) set out to prove that race determined behavior, culture and even character of a person. This book became his ticket to a lecture tour, which allowed him to widely spread his newly discovered “science backed” theories of race, where by he set out to prove that people of different races were a different species all together, based solely on outward characteristics and which people group was more or less “civilized”. Knox’s reputation as a scientist/scholar would be forever tainted by his involvement in a scandal with two other “civilized gentlemen”, where he purchased the dead bodies of homeless people and orphans to conduct his research. (Planned Parenthood?)

“By the end of the eighteenth century, scientists had constructed a taxonomy of nature into which humans could be fitted and out of which emerged the categories of race. This seems to lend credibility to the view that it is modernity itself, and in particular the Enlightenment, that give rise both to the idea of race and to the practice of racism. ‘Eighteenth century Europe was the cradle of racism’, George Mosse, a historian argues,  because, ‘racism has its foundations’ in the Enlightenment ‘preoccupation with a rational universe, nature and aesthetics” writes Kenan Malik, author of Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides Are Wrong in the Race Debate.

The 19th century ushered in two main theories that revolved around the word race and people.

  1. Different races represented different species of humans
  2. Humans were one species and race was used to show variation of humans

The science world exploded with scholars debating over the concept and newly formed ideology of the word race. The Americas looked to what was happening in the science fields in Europe to justify their own cultural norms, specifically as a means to justify slavery, which they needed to stay in place due to economic interests. Oddly enough, many of the European scholars were abolitionists, not being cognizant that their theories and “discoveries” were fueling the evil that was happening on the other side of the ocean.

On both continents, there was hypocrisy in the society of the “civilized”, the “gentlemen”, and the “aristocratic” culture. European aristocrats and colonial “gentlemen” deemed themselves cultured creatures, proponents of order and rational thinking.  Sadly, they were unable to see their own savagery in perpetuating myths and theories that all men who didn’t look like them, act like them, dress like them, or think like them were of lower rank, a different species or blatantly sub-human. With observational reason and research as their guide, they were blinded by their own theories and “advances” in their studies of man. In essence, these civilized scholars and men of “genteel” character had tribalized European culture. Tribalization is a trend we still see happening today with our various “breeds” of education, social status, political affiliations etc. There truly is nothing new under the sun.

In his journal article titled The Negro and the Southern Physician: A Study of the Medical and Racial Attitudes 1880-1860, John S. Haller Jr. writes,  “attitudes, clothed in the authority of medical science helped to suggest, justify, and dictate biological as well as social categories, indeed medical science helped to explain and defend social structure of early 19th century America. The physician was in a peculiar position in America, a position which allowed him not only to study the Negro as a biological ‘type’, but to draw conclusions and elaborate theories on the basis of those findings. His medical studies of the Negro flourished in an atmosphere that had accepted the 18th century hierarchical arrangement of the races of man”.

In 1851, Samuel Cartwright, a Louisiana physician, coined a “mental disorder” based on the work the scholars, doctors, naturalists , anthropologists and researchers were conducting in Europe during the entirety of the Enlightenment period.  Drapetomia was a term used to describe when slaves ran away from their respective plantation owners. It was considered a disease for a slave to run away. He wrote “the cause is most cases, that includes the Negro to run away from service, is such a disease of the mind as in any other species of alienation and much for curable, as a general rule“. He eventually authors another work,  Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race where he theorized that diseases occurring withing the slave population were the “natural offspring of Negro liberty- the liberty to be idle, to wallow in filth and to indulge in improper food and drinks

In 1859, seven years later, Charles Darwin wrote his famous “The Origin of Species”,  where he was convinced that evolution was progressive, and that the white races—especially the Europeans—were evolutionary more advanced than the black races”  reconciling his research, observations and theories, ascribing to the belief that there were race differences and a racial hierarchy.

Darwin ushered in a new scientific age, brought on heels of the Age of Enlightenment. The ending of this era brought in new ones, the Age of Revolution and the Romantic period, which began to move away, socially and scientifically, from the idea that science had to explain everything, however, the damage was done. People, culture and how individuals behaved would be forever changed with the re-definition and use of the word “race”, a metamorphosis that began when man stopped looking to Scripture, and began looking at themselves for answers to questions of humanity.

 “Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859, but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory” (Ontogeny and Phylogeny, 1977).

How did the word “race” evolve, rather, devolve from the celebratory unification of men for a physical competition to the physical division and separation of men in superiority and hostility? It seems like only the Bible had answers to that question then, which the intellectuals of the Enlightenment were unwilling to consider. Scholars, scientists, botanists, naturalists, and all the “thinkers” of the Enlightenment were rationalizing and internalizing the question “did God really say?” (Genesis 3:1). God gave them over to their own intellect and their proposed theories, which we are still reeling from today.


Haller, J. S. (1972). The Negro and the Southern physician: A Study of Medical and Racial attitudes 1800-1860. Medical History, 16(3), 238–253.
Hudson, Nichols. (1996). From Nation to Race: The Origin of Racial Classification in the Eighteenth-Century Thought. John Hopkins University Press. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 29(3). p 247-264.
Jackson, V. (2003). In Our Own Voice: African-American Stories of Oppression, Survival and Recovery. Off Our Backs,33(7/8), 19-21.

Rose, S. (2009). Darwin, race and gender. EMBO Reports, 10(4), 297–298.

Ariel Gonzalez Bovat

Author Ariel Gonzalez Bovat

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