‘Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental’ (Edward Said). Discuss.
The only way historians can understand how imperialism transformed race into a feature of a person's identity is it to appreciate that, ultimately, having a race has become a lived experience − a way of experiencing the world − and hierarchical stratification and racist discourse are merely some of the tools used by imperialism to craft this experience. If historians are to understand how and why imperialism entranced our perception of ourselves as being distinct races, they must also look at evidence relating to people’s self-perception through the notions that were historically associated with having a race, such as being perceived as ‘modern’ or ‘civilised’.
Racialisation, the perception of distinct racial properties, has always existed. Rather, it is the invention of race as a form of personal and social identity which is relatively new. [footnoteRef:1] By studying the literature of the ancient Mediterranean, African and Asian empires, Snowden highlights that there were indeed some references to racial features which resulted in the ‘othering’ of foreigners, however Smedly highlights that there is no evidence of “racial designations” existing within ancient social hierarchies.[footnoteRef:2] There is inconsistent evidence as to when people were identified as White, Black or Oriental; or even as Asian or African. White explorers from the Early Modern period to the 19th century often used contradictory words to describe the people they encountered - words like “modest”, “audacious”, “beautiful”, “ugly” - and on the rare instances where they did describe their skin, they generally described it as “various shades of brown”.[footnoteRef:3] When examining the writings of 19th century African people, there is not a single instance of an Akan or Shona person ever using racialist language other than as a descriptor.[footnoteRef:4] Historians should be careful on relying solely on a period’s literature in assessing the development of racial identity as race is more than simply a label, and the social distinction between people of different races may have been more implicit during these periods. What this evidence does demonstrate is that even if people were aware of racial features prior to imperialism, racialisation had not yet transformed into racism; a person’s race had not yet become a core part of a person’s identity and it never consistently played a formal role in social stratification. [1: C. Mathew and Jeffrey Dennis, Sociology of Racism, (Elsevier, 2015), pp. 1-2.] [2: F. Snowden, Before Colour Prejudice, (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 3-6; and S. Audrey, '"Race" and the construction of human identity', American Anhropologist 100, (1998), 695-6.] [3: T....