Learning Together: Where Did Racism Begin?

Author: Sarah Price

Learning Together

In this second part of our Learning Together series, we are addressing the question of where did racism begin, in hopes of providing some greater historical context to racial injustice. This is building on last week's installment, "What is Racism," which I would encourage everyone to read in order to start this journey.

This part will include eight sources for understanding how Racism has spread, changed forms, and was personified in our world, specifically American history. The famous quote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" from George Santayana is particularly relevant when it comes to this material and the current injustices and inequalities we face today. This history of racism is not synonymous with slavery as it expands beyond it in time and forms. It includes explicit harm - slavery, segregation, and more - as well as implicit harm - stereotypes, representation, and more.

That being said, I encourage you to read and watch the many free resources we have below and seek out further information and knowledge on this subject matter to increase your awareness of the reality we live in. We, as Notre Dame, are meant to be a "force for good" and that means we must understand the plagues of society in order to alleviate them in any way possible.

  1. American Slavery Before Jamestown by the History Channel (5 min read)

This narrative explains the origins of American slavery with the acknowledgment that it did not begin in 1619, when the American colonies did, but rather a century later. Slavery is the most explicit act of racism in global history and its enactment continues to have consequences that have now lasted half of a millennium. This is an important read when we enter the discussion of the past.

  1. A History: The Construction of Race and Racism by the Dismantling Racism Project (20 min read)

This paper, while longer than our other source, is critical in understanding that racism did not begin with...race. The roots of racism stem from differing religions, the mission to Christianize, and the global acceptability of owning those of a different faith. It was acceptable for Christians to have non-Christian slaves, Muslims to have non-Muslim slaves, or African peoples to own others from enemy tribes. However, in the late middle ages, slave owners began to pivot toward making a profit when the Portuguese began their exploration and triggered Western exploitation of African goods, services, and bodies. Original justifications were because African peoples were not vastly Christian, but after Christianization, slavers needed a new reason to justify their highly-profitable industry.

  1. Eugenics by Stanford University (5 min read for beginning; 15 for the whole document)

Expanding on the last source, one way that slavers justified their exploitation of Black people was through eugenics. Literally this means "good birth" and can be seen in the ideology that one is superior to another, most notably in Aryanism. This belief is what eventually led to the construction of races and, in turn, racism. White Europeans used this belief, and later a believed science, to validate the inferiority of Black people and "keep clean" white lineage.

  1. Human Zoos: America's Forgotten History by Discovery Science (55 min video)

This YouTube video is truly eye-opening to the horrors that many African people faced when arriving in the Western world. With an established belief in eugenics, Black people were deemed "midway between man and monkey" and treated as such. This is critical to understand how people can convince themselves to treat another so inhumanely and without dignity. This documentary goes into the long history of Human Zoos in America, one that is not often in our textbooks, and the centuries of psychological justification that blackness was inferior.

  1. 1619 Project by New York Times (too many valuable sources to count)

This multimedia project is not something to read, but something to experience. Named after the first year of American colonies, history, and the beginning of what we see as the United States today, it is in honor of those slaves who, too, were there from the beginning. Without the skill set of Blacks in America on day one, many colonies would have perished. Because their labor was free, their intellectual property was stolen, and individuality was seized, the nation we love has flourished. This project identifies the vast number of contributions of Black people in America from 1619 to today.

  1. Blackface: A Cultural History of a Racist Art Form by CBS Sunday Morning (8 min video)

This short YouTube video encapsulates the broad strokes of what blackface is and how it is damaging to the representation and reality of blackness in America. It, too, is a modern and explicit form of racism even though it was socially acceptable into the 1970s. This false impersonation of the Black person has led to many of the stereotypes that the world holds today against Black people: laziness, uneducated, violent, hypersexual, and more.

  1. Cotton … Blackface Minstrel Show by Cotton and Chick Watts (4 min video)

Here is an actual blackface minstrel show that exemplifies what was considered “high theatre” in the early 1900s. In this video, we see the classic dichotomy between the black man and the white woman and how white theatre openly portrayed blackness. This is horrifying, but history. This video was seen as comedy and revered across the nation, as seen in the pleasure of the audience, even though it builds on eugenics, makes allusions to human zoos, and is beyond racist. This history is not far off and as a college student, I find it shocking that this specific video took place in the 1960s, when my grandmother was my age, and just before my mother was born. This history is, to many alive today, a part of their lifetime and it shows that we still have preconceptions about race, racism, and inferiority either directly from experience or passed down from previous generations. 

  1. Ex Slaves Talk About Slavery in the USA by ABC remastered in 1999 (9 min video)

This video aired in 1999 from ABC, and includes enhanced audio from the original 1949 video which interviewed former slaves (84 years after the outlaw of slavery, 16 years before the Civil Rights Act). These actual slaves were born into it and can recount as if it was yesterday, the atrocities of slavery. "You can't give me the right to be a human being, I was born with that … You can deprive me of it, but you can't give it to me."


Reading and watching these eight sources made me realize that this is not going to be an easy journey. Last week's sources were educational and felt distant, to a degree. This collection of videos, essays, articles is much more personal and I believe it is because we are putting ourselves into the past. It's uncomfortable and it's trying but at least it is not the future. We can make any changes going forward, we just need to learn from our history as Americans, regardless of our race. We cannot change history, but we can make it personal and real, rather than cold and distant.

Thinking of Abraham Lincoln, I think of his notorious picture, tall hat, and a black beard. I think of Lincoln being too distant in the past to be relevant. Yet, the voices of those slaves were recorded sixty years after Lincoln's assassination. Why do I feel as though slavery was just as distant, impersonal, and insignificant, at times? The history of racism is recent, in the last century, and plays a part in many things going on today. Explicit racism is not a black and white image in the back of an antique shop. It is a video, a sound clip, a paper, a song, an experience that is one click away.