The origin of racism was a story. That a 500+ year bad idea could begin so easily illustrates the power of the stories we tell to shape our reality.
The origin of racism as we think of it today dates back to the year 1453. Gomes Eanes de Zurara wrote the first “recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas…” with The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, a record of the Portuguese slave trade in the 1440s.
Before the 1400s, the slave trade was in East European Slavs (where the word slave came from.) By the 1400s, the Slavs got better at defending themselves, and Africa became the main area of operation for slave traders. Gomes Eanes de Zurara crafted a story that justified enslaving Africans by saying that doing so would save the heathens by civilizing and Christianizing them.
The narrative he wrote describing this justification for what Portugese were doing with African slaves was crystalized in the writing of it. The story spread and was applied to other native populations in South Asia, Australasia, and the Americas.
Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s story twisted the African slave trade from what had been slavery’s primary intent as an economic enterprise into something new: a moral cause designed to “help” an inferior group of people (or almost-people, depending on how far one took it.) that justified abuse as a necessary means to a higher end in the process. The story was so powerful, that, in time, many Africans and other non-European populations came to believe in their own inferiority as well.
The recent discoveries around implicit bias – the combination of the brain’s natural inclination to notice difference, and social and cultural frameworks that impose hierarchies and value judgments on those differences – demonstrate how pervasive and insidious this story has become, settling into our bodies at the cellular level.
Racism, in this sense, is like a virus. When everyone is infected, the presence of the virus is normalized as “just how things are. We have all been born into a story that has been told for 500 years. When a story has been told for that long, the story is now telling us.
Once we understand what a story – any story – is telling us, individually or collectively, we get to choose whether we will allow the story to continue or not. Of course, it’s not as simple as just stepping out of the story. It requires more effort than that to interrogate how the story works, how we – individually and collectively – figure into it, and how the story does or does not benefit us.
It’s not a matter of blame or guilt when it comes to those of us who have benefitted from our place inside the story as though it is all our fault. Regardless of our place in them, we were all born into stories we did not choose. However, now that we’re here, now that we know these are stories, and now that we know the power they have to shape the world, we get to make a choice.
What current stories we want to let go of, and what stories we want to replace them with. The origin of racism as we understand it began with a story, which means that it is a creation of the human imagination. If the human imagination can create a story like racism, then it can create other, better stories too.
What better stories could we begin to imagine?
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