The Color of Sin / The Color of Skin:
Ancient Color Blindness and
the Philosophical Origins of Modern Racism
Nicholas F. Gier
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
University of Idaho
Published in Journal of Religious Thought 46:1 (Summer-Fall, 1989), pp. 42-52.
Note: Journal pagination marked in this text
For a critique of a book that may contradict my thesis, please see the review of Benjamin Isaac's The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton University Press, 2004) in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74:3 (September, 2006), pp. 806-808.
I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon. Do not look at me because I am blackened, because the sun has looked upon me.
--The Song of Solomon, 1:5-6 (trans. from the Greek LXX)
The true Moses marries a Blackamoor; Christ, his church. It is not for us
to regard the skin, but the soul.
--Bishop Joseph Hall, Occasional Meditations, 1630
We are whiter in our souls than the whitest of you.
--The Black Queen of Meroe in the Alexander Romance
Note: to view pictures click on this link: www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/color_of_sin.htm
We tend to think that the two great scourges of humankind, sexism and racism, have been around since the beginning of time. With regard to sexism, this is true. Aristotle, for example, thought women are malformed men: they do not have rational souls; they do not have enough soul heat to think properly or to boil their menstrual blood into semen; and, the cruelest cut of all, they are inferior because they have one less tooth than men. Aristotle also believed, along with his compatriots, that all non-Greeks were barbarians and that slavery, especially for those of an inferior class or those captured in war, was completely justified. But Aristotle, and all other ancients of whom we are aware, did not ever think of discriminating against people because of the color of their skin.
The ancient Mediterranean civilizations constituted genuine multiracial societies. In Greek the term for blacks was "Ethiopians" (aithoiphoi). This term applied to all the black peoples across the top of Africa and into Nubia, present day Sudan. Homer praised the Ethiopians for their justice and their piety. Xenophanes compared the physical characteristics of Thracians and Ethiopians without a hint of racial discrimination. Terence, a black writer from Carthage, was given the same recognition as the white Roman Horace. These black (p. 43) Africans were respected as great soldiers, craftsmen, writers, priests, and musicians. In fact, no occupation was denied to them, and both blacks and whites worshipped together at the same temples. There were also no laws against intermarriage and mixed couples were common. Among artists Ethiopian subjects were popular, and they were portrayed sympathetically, as you can see in the pictures above and below.
Following these cultural traditions, early Christian communities had the advantage of not only being nonracist but nonsexist as well. We can say with confidence that, of all the religious leaders of antiquity, Jesus was the only genuine feminist. Over the objections of his male disciples, Jesus allowed a woman to anoint him with costly oil. Except for John's mention of the Beloved Disciple and Luke's unspecified acquaintances," only women witnessed the Crucifixion. The male disciples appeared to have lost their nerve and fled. Jesus' women buried him and were the first witnesses to the Resurrection. Women were prominent among the first missionaries and they were considered equal in all respects. One of the first churches was at the home of Mary, John Mark's mother. There is now evidence that women priests officiated at early Christian services.
Philip's conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 is the proof text of early Christians then and progressive Christians now who argue that Christianity was open to every person whether he or she be "Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or freeman" (Col. 3:11). The Christian fathers were confident that the eunuch returned to his queen, Candace of Nubia, and that she too was converted. Jerome praised the Ethiopian eunuch for his devotion to scripture—Philip found him puzzling over a passage in Isaiah while driving his chariot—and tradition has it that he was a missionary to Arabia and even Sri Lanka.
The church fathers did not stop with the Ethiopian eunuch. Their allegorical methods allowed them to make much of Hebrew stories involving black women. Most modern Christians are ignorant of the fact that Moses married a black woman. Zipporah was her name, and she is variously identified as Midianite, Kushite, and Ethiopian. In Numbers 12 Miriam and Aaron rebuked Moses for marrying this woman, but Yahweh reacted, as he was prone to do, quite decisively: Miriam was made white with leprosy and remained "as one dead . . . and half consumed" for seven days. A caveat is in order here: it is not clear if Aaron and Miriam objected to Zipporah because she was black, or just because she was a foreigner. In the last analysis, however, the point comes to the same.
The early church fathers, led by Origen of Alexandria, a city with a very large black population, interpreted this story as an allegory of the early church. Moses symbolizes the Jewish law, and his Ethiopian wife represents the Gentile church. Aaron and Miriam symbolize the Judaizers, those with whom Paul constantly fought, who believed that only Jews could be Christian. The Protestant bishop Joseph Hall continues the traditional reading: "Moses married a (p. 44) Blackamoor; Christ, his church. It is not for us to regard skin, but the soul."(1) Apart from the allegorizing, there is a fascinating color reversal in this story. In Miriam's punishment Yahweh celebrates black as beautiful by making white ugly: the decayed flesh of her leprous white skin.
Following the model of Moses' wife, the church fathers offer a similar interpretation of the liaison between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The black queen Sheba is a symbol of the Gentile church being wed to her groom Solomon as Christ. Again black is beautiful, and all Christians, whatever their race or status, are represented collectively by a black woman. The use of allegory is powerful: black women are made to represent all the people in the church. Note that under a Protestant literal hermeneutic this interpretative force is lost. In fact, modem Protestant racists could explain away the conversion of a few blacks as anomalies—exceptions that proved the rule.
The epigraph cited from the Song of Solomon follows the same hermeneutical pattern as before. These songs, if taken at face value, are very erotic love poems. But early Christian allegory spiritualizes the physical love of these poems. The black woman again is identified as Ethiopian and once again symbolizes the Gentile church. The dissenting "daughters of Jerusalem" are the Judaizers who wish to bar all non-Jews from the church. The Authorized Version and the Revised Standard Version translations have "I am black, but comely . . . ," which can very easily be interpreted in a racist way. But the Greek Septuagint reads "I am black and beautiful . . . ." and this syntax does not allow a discriminatory reading.
The other significant element of this passage is the implied theory of how black people got their color. Later racist Christians who claimed that the descendants of Ham were made black by God as a punishment for their sins obviously did not read their Bibles very carefully. The writer of the Song of Solomon (whoever he was, he was not Solomon), has a straightforward, nonracist, protoscientific answer: the color of skin pigment has a lot to do with exposure to the sun and nothing to do with sin. As classicist Frank Snowden says, "[in ancient] thought the blackness of the Ethiopian was only skin-deep."(2) And as the black queen of Meroe once said: "We are whiter in our souls than the whitest of you."(3)
Most ancient peoples, including blacks, color-coded good and evil in the way that Hebrews and early Christians did. Black was the color of sin, evil, and death; and white was the symbol of goodness, God, and eternal life. The Jains of ancient India, who were black people before white Aryan Hindus intermarried with them, thought that the evilest soul was literally black. As good Jains worked off their karmic debt, their soul color would turn from black to dark blue to dove-grey to flaming red to yellow and finally to white. As early as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Christian devil appears as a black Ethiopian, and later Christian art portrays those who crucify Christ as black—for example, one painting shows the impenitent thief as black and the penitent one as white. But, with few exceptions, demons and evil people in Christian art do not have Negroid features. Instead, they are white people or monsters painted the color of evil. Until the seventeenth century people consistently refused to do what modem racists do: identify the color of sin and color of skin and systematically discriminate on that basis.
Before moving to the philosophical issues, let us see how Shakespeare continues this ancient color-blind tradition in the character of Othello, the most famous black hero in the theater. In 1554 the first West Africans arrived in London, and by the turn of the century, there were enough of them to cause unease among the general Elizabethan populace. According to Mark Orkin, these black immigrants were stereotyped as "barbarous, treacherous, libidinous, and jealous."(4) In the opening scene of Othello, Shakespeare teases his audience by presenting a prejudiced view of the Moor through the racial slurs of Roderigo and Iago. But just as the juices of racism start flowing, Shakespeare turns the tables on his audience. Unlike the original character, Othello is presented as a Christian gentleman, one who is not only a great general, but an articulate orator with magnificent diction. Othello may be black on the outside but he has a white soul of "Ethiopian beauty" (Origen's words) on the inside. Conversely, Iago's exterior is white, but he has a thoroughly black soul on the inside. The barbarity and treachery that many in Shakespeare's audience might have attributed to black men are expressed instead in the white Iago. And there is even greater irony in the charge of lechery: Othello has not yet even made love to Desdemona, but he finally turns on her and falsely imputes the sin of lust to her. Othello does not fall because of his color; rather, his demise is a combination of his own pride, jealousy, and the devilish machinations of Iago.
We know that Shakespeare read at least one book on the city-state of Venice
and he portrays it correctly as a multiracial society. Moors were discriminated against
on the basis of religion, not race, so Othello's baptism and his military prowess allowed him, as a former slave, to climb to the top of Venetian society. Its top general was a free black man, respected and honored by white lieutenants such as Cassio and attended by low-class whites such as Iago. Without the slightest hint of racism, Cassio celebrates the marriage of Othello and Desdemona as the union of the perfect soldier and the perfect woman, the "divine Desdemona" who "paragons description and wild fame" (11.1.74, 62).
Brabantio vigorously objects to his daughter's marriage to Othello, but his reasons are just as much her lack of loyalty as her love for a black man. The two had fallen in love in Desdemona's house, where Othello was invited often and, at Brabantio's bidding, had enthralled them both with his war stories. It is only after the two elope that Brabantio, incited by Iago and Roderigo's racism and sexual innuendo, descends to racial slurs and accusations of witchcraft. The Duke of Venice wastes little time rejecting this ridiculous charge. Racism as we know it was not yet institutionalized, so the Duke could not appeal to laws against interracial marriage. Although aware of Othello's color, the Duke exhorts Brabantio to look beneath his son-in-law's skin: "If virtue no delighted beauty lack/Your son-in-law is far more fair than black" (I.3.289f.).
Following tradition, Shakespeare acknowledges that black was the color of sin, "the badge of Hell," as he says in Love's Labor's Lost (IV.3.254f.). But equally traditional is his clear separation of the color of sin and the color of skin. Iago himself admits that he is a devil who commits the "blackest sins" against Cassio and his innocent black superior (II. 3.335). In Richard II (I V.I. 94). Shakespeare describes the Turks as "black pagans," the same white men that the black Christian Othello, a former slave of the Turks, is sent to defeat. But as Iago's cruel stratagem takes effect, the fair Desdemona must take on the color of sin: her name "is now begrimed and black as mine own face" (III.3.387). Iago's wife, Emilia, calls Othello a "black devil," not so much for his race as for his heinous deed, "black vengeance" as Othello himself calls it, again as the color of sin and not his skin.
We have seen that the treachery and sexual immorality usually associated with blacks are imputed instead to white actors in the play. But in portraying Othello as violently jealous, a vice most closely connected with North Africans who reputedly killed because of it, a critic might say Othello does, after all, fall because of his race. This hypothesis does not really have much support in the play, and Martin Orkin gives the best reasons why it fails. Although his passions do finally get the best of him, Othello does not act without cause and deliberation. Orkin shows that there was a widespread consensus in Elizabethan England that adultery, following Mosaic law, ought to be a capital crime. In fact, for the (p. 47) Puritan divines the Law of Love required it, and there is clear evidence in the play that this is one of Othello's motivations. Othello gives another reason compatible with Puritan theology: adulteresses must be liquidated before they betray any more trusting men. Furthermore, Othello demands evidence of his wife's infidelity, action that demonstrates that his sense of justice is not entirely clouded by passion. His principal fault, then, is that he takes justice into his own hands, both by strangling Desdemona and by killing himself. In the end, no one, not even Iago, offers racial reasons for Othello's fatal flaw, for pathological jealousy, one without good cause, "a monster begot upon itself," can be found in any human soul.
Quite apart from changing social and economic conditions, are there elements of early modern philosophy which might have led to ideological racism as we now know it? In 1684 Francois Bernier, a student of the atomist Gassendi and close friend of John Locke, proposed that there were four or five different human races, and he concluded that the blackness of the African was essential whereas the dark color of the Hindu was accidental. In his seminal The Aryan Myth, Leon Poliakov suggests that Bernier's thesis is the first "in which the term 'race' appears in its modern sense."(5) In his famous Philosophy of History (Chapter 2), Voltaire also argued that blacks were a separate, inferior species. Indeed, the polygenetic theory of human origins was popular among the 18th Century philosophes. For the first time in history human beings were ranked according to race and skin color, as witnessed by John Ovington's conclusion that the Hottentot was the "medium between a rational animal and a beast."(6)
H. M. Bracken and Noam Chomsky contend that the empiric tradition must bear a large share of the blame for modern racism. As Europeans began to feel the need to justify their discriminatory treatment of non-Europeans, empirical methods, say Bracken and Chomsky, readily allowed them to conclude that Indians and Africans were inferior people. The Cartesian view of universal thinking substance could support a monogenetic view of human nature and origins; but an empirical view, forcing, as it were, essences to the surface, would lead to a polygenetic theory of human essence. This is, in fact, the view of David Hume, the most celebrated and most consistent empiricist. In a footnote to his essay "Of National Characters," he proposes this polygenetic theory: "I (p. 48) am apt to suspect the Negroes and, in general, all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the white . . . Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men."(7) (Note that Hume mentions the same number of species as Bernier, suggesting a direct influence.) Hume makes it clear that monogenetic views, which maintain that it is simply environment and lack of education that held these people back, do not take into consideration the clear evidence of their incorrigible, uneducable, and hence separate natures. Unfortunately, Hume's authority was widely used by racists many decades after this pronouncement.
Bracken focuses on Locke's view of essences to prove his thesis about empiricism's complicity in the rise of modern racism. Bracken claims that "if one is a Cartesian, a defender of mind/body dualism, it becomes impossible to state a racist position. Man's essential properties reside finally in his spirit. His colour, his language, his biology, even his sex, are in the strictest sense accidental."(8) But with Locke's attack on essential properties, his skepticism regarding substance, and his view that secondary qualities inhere in primary ones, all conceptual barriers to treating skin color as simply accidental are removed. Since, according to Locke, the real substance of anything is unknowable, we then count the observable qualities inhering in any particular thing. This Bracken calls the "tally-model" for determining what are now only nominal essences. Further-more, Locke admits that human interests and preferences will play a significant role in which qualities are chosen as distinguishing characteristics.
In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke presents a scenario about a child, who has always associated white color and humankind, suddenly meeting a Negro. Locke maintains that "the child can demonstrate to you that a Negro is not a man, because white-colour was one of the constant simple ideas of the complex idea he calls man" (IV, vii, §16). In her response to Bracken, Kay Squadrito says he fails to mention that Locke hastens to add that the child is wrong. Bracken rejoins that, as a conventionalist, Locke cannot give any reason, except simply preferring his association to the child's, for rejecting white skin color as an essential property of being human. If this is true, one might be tempted to conclude that it is better to have a benign myth of monogenetic origins based on speculative a priori grounds, rather than a skeptical polygenetic theory on an a posteriori basis.
Bracken only hints at what effects the empiricist tradition have had on contemporary philosophy, where conventionalism and suspicion of traditional essences and the general case are widespread. Bracken mentions Ryle, Austin, (p. 49) and Wittgenstein as advocating a philosophy that would "leave things as they are." Several commentators have suggested that Wittgenstein's conventionalism does indeed lead to reactionary social and political positions. The Wittgensteinian analyst is exhorted to simply describe language games and forms of life. Not only is explanation of the traditional sort impossible, but also any normative assessment of any state of affairs. This means that there is no recourse to the white Afrikaner who defends apartheid using the Wittgensteinian "This is simply what we do." Wittgenstein appeared to put his philosophy into practice as well. At the beginning of World War II it is said that Wittgenstein was particularly irritated at some of his Cambridge colleagues, who consciously maintained critical distance from the groundswell of support for the British war effort. In stark contrast was Wittgenstein's own fervent desire to drop everything and help in any way possible, eventually working as a medical orderly. It is interesting to speculate whether he would have been just as uncritical in his support if he had stayed in his native Austria, a country which took up the Nazi cause just as enthusiastically as did Germany itself.
While it is unclear whether Wittgenstein can be defended against these charges, Kay Squadrito has vindicated Locke in several responses to Bracken. She reminds him that Locke insisted that nominal essences must conform to nature itself, and that one may not arbitrarily add or delete qualities at will. Furthermore, she demonstrates that Locke's concept of person is almost identical to the rationalist view. Like Descartes and the Christian theologians, Locke believed that "man's essential properties reside finally in his spirit."(9) Although Bracken does not claim a necessary relation between empiricism and racism, he would still be hard-pressed to explain why Kant's essentialism did not prevent him from agreeing with Hume on the separate origin of blacks. Finally, there is the fact that evangelical empiricists, following the philosophy of Thomas Reid, became leaders of the American abolitionist movement, while more traditional rationalists such as Charles Hodge of Princeton persisted in their racism.
Squadrito also points out that Locke thought that science would provide us with the most objective means of determining essences, far more accurate than the speculative, sometimes errant, essentialism of the past. The main problem is not empiricism and induction, but the dangers of pseudoscience and false induction. As soon as Hume's footnote was published, several critics, one of them a student of Thomas Reid, charged that Hume had got the facts wrong. Racial ideologies of the twentieth century have been most effectively refuted in the same way, thus showing that the data have either been manipulated or have been incorrectly generalized. Furthermore, modern anthropologists, historians, and (p. 50) archaeologists, rather than perpetuating racism, have used empirical methods to demonstrate the great achievements of, for example, African civilizations.
It is true that racial ideologues continue to be countered by more speculative claims of a common human nature, based either on Cartesian innateness or the egalitarian idea of the image of God. One can see how easily this Judeo-Christian view of human nature could and did merge with the res cogitans of Cartesianism and other rationalist psychologies. Bracken's argument is that the principal advantage of a substance approach to persons is the clear implication that one person can in essence be no more or less a soul than any other person. Such a view gives solid foundations for formal equality before the law, whereas, according to Bracken, an empiricist view, such as we saw in John Ovington, could easily lead to a ranking of persons according to preferred external qualities.
There are severe deficiencies with a substance view of the self. First, it is at odds with the biblical view of humanity, which is voluntarist, nonsubstantial, and relational; second, such a theory does not do justice to the noncognitive aspects of human experience, such as the passions, imagination, and creativity; and third, such a view leads to the egocentric predicament and the related problems of otherness and alienation.
Descartes' method of systematic doubt had a profound impact not only on technical epistemology, but also on the way we moderns view the world. This method essentially gave new meaning to what it means to be a subject; in fact, modern subjectivism has its roots in the ego cogito of the Meditations. The pre-Cartesian meaning of subject (Gk. hypokeimenon; Lat. subiectum) can still be seen in the "subjects" one takes at school or the "subject" of a sentence. In this ancient sense all things are "subjects," things with "underlying [essential] kernels," as the Greek literally says. But after Cartesian doubt, there is only one subject of which we are certain, namely the individual thinking subject. All the other things in the world, including persons, have now become objects of thought, not subjects in their own right.
Cartesian subjectivism gives birth simultaneously to objectivism as well, and, with the influence of a new mechanical worldview, the stage is set for conceiving uniquely modern forms of otherness and alienation. Racism is obviously one of the most vicious forms of the objectification of persons in the modern world. To be fair, one must say that the empiricist as well as rationalist philosophers have perpetuated the egocentric predicament and subject-object split. At the same time, it could be said that an empirical view of the self (for example, Hume's bundle theory) is more amenable to the relational view of the self which can be found in twentieth century thinkers such as Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, George Herbert Mead, Michael Polanyi, Alfred North Whitehead, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Allan Boesak, the great South African activist and theologian, maintains that (p. 51)
the image of God should not be conceived as "morphological," that is as some Aristotelian form which defines human nature, but as "dynamic and functional."(10) This means that a philosophical interpretation of biblical anthropology should be conceived in the terms of process, not traditional substance, categories. The Boethian concept of persons as rational substances has obscured the importance of human relationality. Substances are self-contained, self-sufficient, and externally related, and it is clear that a substance metaphysics, besides fostering otherness and alienation, simply cannot do justice to one of the most essential aspects of the life of persons—their essential relatedness and interdependence.
In addition to process theists, other theologians have seen the necessity of moving away from a substance view of persons. Emil Brunner observes that one's humanity is not a thing one possesses as a result of simply being born human; rather, it is a matter of decision and it is constituted in I-Thou relations with God and other human beings." (11) Wolfhart Pannenberg also rejects the idea that the person is a thing and argues that such a view actually destroys the possibility of human freedom. Characteristic of Pannenberg's future-oriented anthropology, genuine personhood, just like Heidegger's authentic Dasein, is always "ahead of itself," something "not yet," a possibility in an open future. (12) This means that, in contrast to animals who do not freely choose their destiny, human beings can actually fail to be human. Dogs and snails will always be dogs and snails, but human persons can fail to be themselves, principally by declining to recognize the authentic humanity of their neighbors.
A growing consensus in the human and social sciences has confirmed the dynamic, functional, relational, and developmental anthropology found in ancient world-views as diverse as the African, the Hebrew, and the Chinese. In his study of "wolf" children Lucien Malson concludes that there is much truth in the Marxist observation that "man at birth is the least capable of all creatures." (13) A weaned puppy, even without the company of other dogs, grows up to be a dog; but a weaned baby fending for itself outside of human society does not develop normally. Indeed, it is difficult to use the word "human" to describe many "wolf" children. Such studies are striking proof of the theory that human identity and behavior are largely constituted by social relations. It is significant to note that ren, the Confucian virtue of human heartedness, literally (p. 52) means "two peopleness." (This serves as a marvelous Asian counterpart to Buber's Mitmenschlichkeit.) It is also important to mention that Confucian discussions on human nature rarely ever focus on reason as the essence of persons. Without a clear idea of the essential relatedness of humanity, the Kantian principle of rational autonomy can easily distort our view of the role of other persons in our moral lives.
It is of particular irony that we have shown that peoples, such as the Hebrews, the Africans, and the Chinese, who were either victims of slavery or systematic discrimination (or both), nonetheless preserved a view of human nature that should play a primary role in resolving some of our worst social evils. Let us close with a quotation from Bishop Desmond Tutu: "In Africa we say a person is a person through other persons. We can be human only in fellowship. The law of our being is that we have been created for togetherness, for communion." Euro-American philosophy has much to learn from this statement.
1. Joseph Hall, Occasional Meditations (1630), quoted in G. K. Hunter, "Othello and Colour Prejudice," Proceedings of the British Academy 53 (1967), p. 153. On a related point Hunter paraphrases Augustine's reading of Psalm 73:14: "Augustine asks who are meant by the Ethiopians; and answers that all nations are Ethiopians, black in their natural sinfulness; but they may become white in the knowledge of the Lord" (Ibid.).
2. Frank Snowden, Before Color Prejudice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 103. The author is indebted to Snowden for many of the points in Section I.
4. Mark Orkin, "Othello and the 'Plain Face' of Racism," Shakespeare Quarterly 38:2 (Summer, 1987), p. 167.
5. Leon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth (New York: Basic Books, 1974), p. 143. This reference and the one to Bernier is taken from H. M. Bracken's "Philosophy and Racism," Philosophical Quarterly of Israel 8 (November, 1987), p. 247.
6. Quoted in Bracken, p. 247. Ovington's works were found in John Locke's library and he is mentioned in Book I of the Essay.
7. David Hume, "Of National Characters" in The Philosophical Works of David Hume, ed. by T. H. Green and T. H. Grose (London: 1882), Vol. 3, p. 252fn.
8. M. Bracken, "Essence, Accident, and Race," Hermathena 16 (Winter, 1973), p. 83.
9. Kay Squadrito, "Racism and Empiricism," Behaviorism 1 (Spring, 1977), p. 114.
10. Allan Boesak, Black and Reformed (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1984), p. 103.
11. Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilization (London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), vol. 1, p. 79.
12. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Gottesgedanke und Menschliche Freiheit (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck Ruprecht, 1978), p. 43.
13. Lucien Malson, Wolf Children and the Problem of Human Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), p. 9.