Who Invented White People?
That said, why did something called "racial" difference becomes so important in people's sense of their identity? Before the age of exploration, group differences were largely based on language, religion, and geography. The word "race" referred rather loosely to a population group that shared a language, customs, social behaviors, and other cultural characteristics--as in the French race or the Russian race or the Spanish race (differences, we might now call "ethnic" rather than "racial"). As European adventurers, traders, and colonists accelerated their activities in Africa and Asia and the Americas, there emerged a need to create a single large distinction for differentiating between the colonizers and the colonized, or the slave traders and the enslaved. At first, religious distinctions maintained their preeminence, as the Africans and American Indians were dubbed pagans, heathens, barbarians, or savages--that is, as creatures without the benefits of Christian civilization or, perhaps, even as creatures without souls. Efforts to Christianize the Indians and Africans, however, were never separate from efforts to steal their lands or exploit their labor. To justify such practices, Europeans needed a difference greater than religion, for religious justification melted away once the Indian or African converted.
Now the European had always reacted a bit hysterically to the differences of skin color and facial structure between themselves and the populations encountered in Africa, Asia, and the Americas (see, for example, Shakespeare's dramatization of racial conflict in Othello and The Tempest). Beginning in the 1500s, Europeans began to develop what became known as "scientific racism," the attempt to construct a biological rather than cultural definition of race. Biological races were said to predict and determinedthe cultural traits of peoples, so that cultural differences could be "explained" on a "scientific" basis. Scientific racism divided the world's populations into a few large species or groups. By the nineteenth century, race scientists settled on the term "Caucasians," first used as a synonym for Europeans in 1807, probably because the terms association with the Near East and Greece suited white people's desire to see themselves as having originated in the Golden Age of Classical Civilization.