The genesis of the notion of race

The genesis of the notion of race, 17th – 18th centuries

May 10 , 2023

Éric Schnakenbourg

Race is a social and historical construct based on an abstract that divides humanity into humanities. It is a label that fixes individuals into categories from which they cannot escape. It is the key element behind the organization and hierarchy of the Atlantic world from the 16th century onwards.

Europeans became aware of human diversity very early on, as there had been Black people living in Europe since antiquity. In the late 15th century, some European cities had a significant proportion of Black persons amongst their inhabitants, like Lisbon where they accounted for approximately 10% of the population. The term race was used at that time to designate a lineage, a genealogy. It was on this basis in the Iberian Peninsula that in the 16th century, the idea of a transgenerational transmission of “impurities” through the blood emerged. Such “impurities” included heresy, enslavement, or even the fact of having had Muslim or Jewish ancestry. What was then called purity of blood (limpieza de sangre) was a necessary condition for accessing certain positions and dignities. “Infections of the blood” imposed a determinism on individuals because of their genealogy. It was based on these old ideas that the idea of race crystallized in the 17th century to designate a group of individuals presenting common physical characteristics, with which abilities and inabilities were associated. This development went hand in hand with the rise of the Atlantic trade of enslaved African peoples and the practice of enslavement.  

Firstly, it is worth distinguishing between the term “races” and “race”. The use of the term in the plural relates to biology and genetics. It is based on the idea of the predetermined abilities of living creatures according to their appearance. However, when it comes to humans, no population group is predestined to fail or succeed in a particular area. There is no relationship between the appearance of a group of people and their physical or intellectual capabilities. While these can vary, they do so on an individual and not a collective scale. This idea of human races is not admissible. On the other hand, “race” designates a social fact or an analytical category that offers a key to understanding the processes of assignment, relegation, and domination, as well as exclusion and segregation. Race is a socio-cultural construct familiar to the men and women of the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a prism that enabled them to organize the world in which they lived. As such, the idea of race is central to the history of American societies. They were, and remain, deeply marked by racial issues given the fact that all parts of America have experienced, albeit to varying degrees, racialized enslavement.

Race, colour, and enslavement

 Some historians do not use the term race and prefer the term “colour prejudice”. First, it should be noted that the term race has been in relatively widespread use since the 17th century; secondly, as the term better reflects the relationship between the colour and nature of individuals, it makes it possible to separate people into groups. Skin colour is the determining element of race, which was used at an early stage in discriminating and disqualifying distinctions. However, until the late 17th century, for Europeans, it was not considered an insurmountable obstacle to inclusion in civilized society. Driven by Christian universalism, missionaries believed that evangelization and education could allow the Amerindian populations to progress, and even to achieve a certain assimilation.

Atlantic trade, Free West Indian Creoles in elegant dress
Free West Indian Creoles in elegant dress (libres des Caraïbes créoles en élégants habits), Agostino Brunias, 1780, Domaine public -Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Racialization goes through skin colour, which is an immediately noticeable feature, of which an individual can never be rid. As it is transmitted, it goes beyond the individual as a person and connects them to a lineage, or a race in the old sense of the term. This is why skin colour is the most enduring marker of stigma. The terms “White” and “Black” to designate groups of individuals began to spread during the 17th century. In the French West Indies, the development of trading in enslaved African peoples and enslavement had the effect of amalgamating individuals of diverse origins and cultures because of their skin colour and creating a single and specific category: Black. This assignment was coupled with an assimilation to the servile condition. In 18th-century dictionaries and encyclopaedias, the terms “Black” and the highly derogatory “Negro” were synonymous with enslaved individuals. Skin colour (Blackness) was coupled with a social identity (enslaved person). The intellectual deficiencies attributed to Black people, as well as their savagery, their inability to reason, and their supposed penchant for sin and vice put them quite naturally in a condition of enslavement. Even more so since from this perspective, they were reputed to be more resistant to the working conditions on plantations. By this line of reasoning, Black people therefore, were by nature born for enslavement or a servile condition from which they had little chance of escaping.

Biracialism, the challenge of race

The reduction of race to skin colour produced false certainties as in the American context for example, men were not clearly divided into White and Black. It happened, in New York for example, that certain dark-skinned Spaniards were confused with Africans and put into enslavement. But the real challenge to racial classification was biracialism. 
Biracialism was very common in the 16th century in the American world, due to the small number of European women living there. However, it began to be condemned in the 17th century and especially in the 18th century. A plethora of prohibitions on marriages and intimate relations between Whites and Blacks in the French and English colonies then emerged. However, biracialism or miscegenation remained a reality. In the French West Indies, in particular, it was considered a threat to the racial order at the heart of societies based on enslavement. The fixity of race, which made it possible to put everyone in their correct place, was also undermined by the increase in the number of free people of colour, amongst whom were many biracial persons. The legal order, distinguishing between enslaved and free individuals, was overwhelmed by the social order organized around the colour barrier. It became the fundamental fracture line of colonial societies, as Black and Biracial persons were irremediably associated with enslaved persons.

Even emancipation did not exonerate individuals from the determinism of race: the marker of servility passed from generation to generation. This is why many settlers developed an obsession with racial purity and whiteness, as these were the foundations of social prestige. The slightest suspicion of a “biracial ancestor” in one’s genealogy could ruin a reputation. The importance of whiteness may also be seen in the development of a nomenclature or terminology to designate the distance between the Black ancestor and the biracial person: “mulattoes” (one Black parent, one White parent), “quadroons” (one Black grandparent, three White grandparents), “grifs” (three Black grandparents, one White grandparent), “mamelukes” (one Black ancestor, seven White ancestors), “marabous” (seven Black ancestors, one White ancestor), etc. This type of classification combining skin colour and genealogy gives the illusion of a well-ordered and clearly hierarchical society, categorized through the prism of whiteness where everyone remains in their place. If the issue of race was a lived reality in America, it also raised questions of a scientific nature.

Atlantic history, Black Lives Matter: Justice for Jamal
Justice for Jamar Response Action, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2015, Fibonacci Blue

Studying and explaining races

The causes of human diversity quickly became a subject of study. Even in the early 17th century, European doctors conducted research in order to understand the causes of African skin colour. The environmentalist interpretation prevailed for a long time, seen as a reaction to the excessive heat of the sun. From the early 18th century however, the gradual questioning of the influence of climatic conditions gave way to more medical and anthropological considerations. One of the recurring questions concerned the uniqueness or plurality of human origins. For the naturalist Buffon, all peoples had the same origin. But they presented “varieties” because the closer they lived to the Pole or the equator, the more they degenerated. The browning of the skin was considered the most visible manifestation of diminished intellectual capacities. Others, like Voltaire, believed human beings to have different origins and to not come from a single core. In other words, the the human races were truly separate.

The question of races was part of the Enlightenment reflection on the place of humans within nature, a subject that fascinated naturalists and philosophers alike. Their research ended up praising the intrinsic natural qualities of Europeans, and therefore Whiteness, relegating Black people to the lower ranks of humanity. The idea of race allowed for a hierarchy featuring the most evolved creatures of the animal world, like orangutans. The idea of a gradation or range from animals to humans could be seen in cranial anthropometry, popular in the late 18th century. The supposed aim was to explain, based on empirical measurements, the differences in intelligence and abilities between human groups, thereby foreshadowing the biological racism of the 19th century.


The idea of race is above all a social construct developed to order human diversity. In this sense, it provides a grid for reading the world. It cannot be used without implying a hierarchy based on the capacities of some, which are denied to others. It indelibly inscribes qualities, aptitudes, and moral characteristics that are transmitted over generations. In the context of Atlantic trade, it gave rise to a form of domination over individuals seen as naturally inferior, and precisely because this inferiority was natural, it could not be compensated for by education. Some endured a system from which it was impossible to escape, while others took advantage of a de facto situation. Racialism denied the possibility of progress through a hereditary assignment based on skin colour,  considered an indisputable criterion of differentiation. Each person was simply a representative of their race, denied their singularity due to the irreversible assignment to a specific group. In this sense, at least as much as colour itself, genealogy played an essential role in making individuals “Black”.

Further information

🔶 A radio programme on the idea of race. In French. (France Culture, 2022). Can be listened to online: HERE

🔶The idea of “Race”. Interview with Sarga Moussa, Director of the LIRE Laboratory. Can be watched online: HERE

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

About the authors 


Eric Schnakenbourg is professor of modern history at Nantes Université and director of the Centre de Recherches en Histoire Internationale et Atlantique (CRHIA). His work focuses on the history of international relations in Europe and the Atlantic world in the 17th and 18th centuries. He is the author of Le Monde Atlantique: un espace en mouvement XVe-XVIIIe siècle (Armand Colin, 2021), and Entre la guerre et la paix: Neutralité et relations internationales, XVII-XVIIIe siècle (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2013).


Boulle Pierre. Race et esclavage dans la France de l’Ancien Régime. Paris: Perrin, 2007.

Curran Andrew. The anatomy of blackness: science & slavery in an age of Enlightenment. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Michel Aurélia. Un monde en nègre et blanc : enquête historique sur l’ordre racial. Paris: Seuil, coll. “Points”, 2020.

Schaub Jean-Frédéric and Sebastiani Silvia. Race et histoire dans les sociétés occidentales (XVe-XVIIIe siècle). Paris: Albin Michel, 2021.

Vartija Devin J. The Color of Equality. Race and Common Humanity in Enlightenment Thought. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021.





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