The term black people usually refers to a racial group of humans with skin colors that range from light brown to nearly black. It is also used to categorize a number of diverse populations together based on historical and prehistorical ancestral relationships. Some definitions of the term include only people of relatively recent Sub Saharan African descent (see African diaspora). Among the members of this group, dark skin is most often accompanied by the expression of natural afro-hair texture (although a recent scientific study notes that human skin color diversity is highest in sub-Saharan African populations). Other definitions of the term "black people" extend to other populations characterized by dark skin, including some indigenous to Oceania and Southeast Asia.
Further information: Human skin color
Map of indigenous skin color distribution in the world based on Von Luschan's chromatic scale.
Map showing Sub-Saharan Africa colored green and North Africa colored gray.
The evolution of dark skin is linked intrinsically to the loss of body hair in humans. By 1.2 million years ago, all people having descendants today had the same receptor protein of today's Africans; their skin was dark, and the intense sun killed off the progeny with any lighter skin that resulted from mutational variation in the receptor protein. This is significantly earlier than the speciation of Homo sapiens from Homo erectus some 250,000 years ago.
Skin cancer as a result of ultraviolet light radiation causing mutations in the skin is less common among people with dark skin than it is among those with light skin.Furthermore, dark skin prevents an essential B vitamin, folate, from being destroyed. Therefore, in the absence of modern medicine and diet, a person with dark skin in the tropics would live longer, be healthier and more likely to reproduce than a person with light skin. White Australians have some of the highest rates of skin cancer as evidence of this expectation. Conversely, as dark skin prevents sunlight from penetrating the skin it hinders the production of vitamin D3. Hence when humans migrated to less sun-intensive regions in the north, low vitamin D3 levels became a problem and lighter skin colors started appearing. White people of Europe, who have low levels of melanin, naturally have an almost colorless skin pigmentation, especially when untanned. This low level of pigmentation allows the blood vessels to become visible which gives the characteristic pale pink color of white people. The loss of melanin in white people is now thought to have been caused by a mutation in just one letter out of 3.1 billion letters of DNA.
The texture of hair in people of Sub-Saharan African ancestry is noticeably different from that of Eurasian populations, as was already noted by Herodotus, who described the peoples of Libya (the "western Ethiopians") as wooly-haired.
Such "afro-hair" texture is denser than its straight counterparts. Due to this, it is often referred to as 'thick', 'bushy', or 'woolly'. For several reasons, possibly including its relatively flat cross section (among other factors), this hair type conveys a dry or matte appearance. It is also very coarse, and its unique shape renders it very prone to breakage when combed or brushed.
The specific characteristics of the natural afro-hair form are unique among all mammals. The texture likely predates the evolution of dark skin. It evolved when, as pre-human Australopithecines lost most of their fur to enable perspiration, the need to protect the newly exposed pale skin underneath this body hair was crucial ( in light of Rogers et al., 2004 and Harding et al., 2000). The trait ceased to be essential to survival at the equator upon the evolution of hairless dark skin. Yet it has continued to be expressed vestigially among most Melanesians, Andaman Islanders, and sub-Saharan Africans.
Demographics of Africa
A black woman and her albino son from Tanzania
Sub-Saharan Africa is a common, if imprecise term that encompasses African countries located south of the Sahara Desert. It is commonly used to differentiate the region culturally, ecologically, politically and, more controversially, racially, from North Africa, which has historically been part of the Mediterranean sphere. Because the indigenous people of this region are primarily dark-skinned, it is alternatively called "Black Africa". Some criticize the use of the term, because, having become in many quarters synonymous with Black Africa, it can leave the mistaken impression that there are not indigenous Black populations in North Africa. Furthermore, the Sahara cuts across countries such as Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan, leaving some parts of them in North Africa and some in sub-Saharan Africa.
Owen 'Alik Shahadah argues that the term sub-Saharan Africa has racist overtones:
Sub-Saharan Africa is a racist byword for "primitive", a place which has escaped advancement. Hence, we see statements like “no written languages exist in Sub-Saharan Africa.” “Ancient Egypt was not a Sub-Saharan African civilization.” Sub-Sahara serves as an exclusion, which moves, jumps and slides around to suit negative generalization of Africa.
However, some Black Africans prefer to be culturally distinguished from those who live in the north of the continent.
Cultural ideas of a black race
A Khoisan man, an ethnic group in South Africa.
In South Africa during the apartheid era, the population was classified into four main racial groups: Black, White, Asian (mostly Indian), and Coloured. The Coloured group included people of mixed Bantu, Khoisan, and European descent (with some Malay ancestry, especially in the Western Cape). The Coloured definition occupied an intermediary position between the Black and White definitions in South Africa.
The apartheid bureaucracy devised complex (and often arbitrary) criteria in the Population Registration Act to determine who belonged in which group. Minor officials administered tests to enforce the classifications. When it was unclear from a person's physical appearance whether a person was to be considered Colored or Black, the "pencil test" was employed. This involved inserting a pencil in a person's hair to determine if the hair was kinky enough for the pencil to get stuck.
During the apartheid era, those classed as 'Coloured' were oppressed and discriminated against. However, they did have limited rights and overall had slightly better socioeconomic conditions than those classed as 'Black'.
In the post-apartheid era, the ANC government's laws in support of their affirmative action policies define 'Black' people to include "Africans", "Coloureds" and "Asians". Their affirmative action policies have also favored 'Africans' over 'Coloureds'. Some South Africans categorized as 'African Black' openly state that 'Coloureds' did not suffer as much as they did during apartheid. The popular saying by 'Coloured' South Africans to illustrate their dilemma is:
We were not white enough under apartheid, and we are not black enough under the ANC (African National Congress)
In 2008, the High Court in South Africa ruled that Chinese South Africans who were residents during the apartheid era (and their descendents) are to be reclassified as "Black people" solely for the purposes of accessing affirmative action benefits, because they were also "disadvantaged" by racial discrimination. Chinese people who arrived in the country after the end of apartheid do not qualify, and neither do other black people who settled in South Africa from elsewhere after the end of the apartheid era.
Other than by appearance, 'Coloureds' can usually be distinguished from 'Blacks' by language. Most speak Afrikaans or English as a first language, as opposed to Bantu languages such as Zulu or Xhosa. They also tend to have more European-sounding names than Bantu names.
In the Middle East
Black African and Near Eastern peoples have interacted since prehistoric times. Some historians estimate that as many as 14 million black slaves crossed the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara Desert in the Arab slave trade from 650 to 1900 CE. The Moroccan Sultan Moulay Ismail "the Bloodthirsty" (1672–1727) raised a corps of 150,000 black slaves, called his Black Guard, who coerced the country into submission.
13th century slave market in Yemen. Yemen officially abolished slavery in 1962.
The Afro-Asiatic languages, which include Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, are believed by some scholars to have originated in Ethiopia. This is because the region has very diverse language groups in close geographic proximity, often considered a telltale sign for a linguistic geographic origin.
In more recent times, about 1000 CE, interactions between black people and Arabs resulted in the incorporation of extensive Arabic vocabulary into Swahili, which became a useful lingua franca for merchants. Some of this linguistic exchange occurred as part of the slave trade; the history of Islam and slavery shows that the major juristic schools traditionally accepted the institution of slavery. As a result, Arab influence spread along the east coast of Africa and to some extent into the interior (see East Africa). Timbuktu was a trading outpost that linked west Africa with Berber, Arab, and Jewish traders throughout the Arab World. As a result of these interactions many Arab people in the Middle East have black ancestry and many black people on the east coast of Africa and along the Sahara have Arab ancestry.
According to Dr. Carlos Moore, resident scholar at Brazil's University of the state of Bahia, Afro-multiracials in the Arab world self-identify in ways that resemble Latin America. He claims that black-looking Arabs, much like black-looking Latin Americans, consider themselves white because they have some distant white ancestry.
Moore also claims that a film about Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had to be canceled when Sadat discovered that an African-American had been cast to play him. In fact, the 1983 television movie Sadat, starring Louis Gossett, Jr., was not canceled. The Egyptian government refused to let the drama air in Egypt, partially on the grounds of the casting of Gossett. The objections, however, did not come from Sadat, who had been assassinated two years earlier.
Sadat's mother was a black Sudanese woman and his father was a lighter-skinned Egyptian. In response to an advertisement for an acting position he remarked, "I am not white but I am not exactly black either. My blackness is tending to reddish".
Fathia Nkrumah was another Egyptian with ties to Black Africa. She was the late wife of Ghanaian revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah, whose marriage was seen as helping plant the seeds of cooperation between Egypt and other African countries as they struggled for independence from European colonization, which in turn helped advance the formation of the African Union.
Because of the patriarchal nature of Arab society, Arab men had more use of black female slaves than black male slaves, more black women were enslaved than men, and, because the Qur'an was interpreted to permit sexual relations between a male master and his female slave outside of marriage, many mixed race children resulted. When an enslaved woman became pregnant with her Arab captor's child, she became “umm walad” or “mother of a child”, a status that granted her privileged rights. The child would have prospered from the wealth of the father and been given rights of inheritance. Because of patrilineality, the children were born free and sometimes even became successors to their ruling fathers, as was the case with Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, (whose mother was a Fulani concubine), who ruled Morocco from 1578 to 1608. Such tolerance, however, was not extended to wholly black persons, even when technically "free," and the notion that to be black meant to be a slave became a common belief. The term "abd", (Arabic: عبد,) "slave," remains a common term for black people in the Middle East, often though not always derogatory.
Beginning several centuries ago, a number of sub-Saharan Africans were brought by slave traders during the Ottoman Empire to plantations between Antalya and Istanbul in modern-day Turkey Some of their descendants remain, mixed with the rest of the population in these areas, and many migrated to larger cities. Some came from the island of Crete following the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923.
Ethiopian Jewish soldier serving in the Israel Defence Force
About 150,000 blacks live in Israel, amounting to just over 2% of the nation's population. The vast majority of these, some 120,000, are Ethiopian Jews, most of whom came during the 1980s and 1990s. Over 16,000 African asylum seekers have entered Israel in recent years. A smaller but significant group is the Black Jews of Kerala, many of whom settled in the moshavs (agricultural settlements) of the Negev (southern desert) In addition, Israel is home to over 5,000 members of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem movement who reside mainly in a distinct neighborhood in the Negev town of Dimona. Unknown numbers of black converts to Judaism reside in Israel, most of then converts from the UK, Canada, and the United States. Thousands of mixed-race individuals with non-black Jewish relatives also live in Israel.
In the Americas
Afro-American peoples of the Americas
Approximately 12 million Africans were shipped to the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade from 1492 to 1888. Today their descendants number approximately 150 million, most of whom live in the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America, including Brazil. Many have a multiracial background of African, Amerindian, European and Asian ancestry. The various regions developed complex social conventions with which their multi-ethnic populations were classified.
African immigration to the United States
In the first 200 years that black people had been in the United States, they commonly referred to themselves as Africans. In Africa, people primarily identified themselves by ethnic group (closely allied to language) and not by skin color. Individuals would be Ashanti, Igbo, Bakongo or Wolof. But when Africans were brought to the Americas they were forced to give up their ethnic affiliations for fear of uprisings. The result was the Africans had to intermingle with other Africans from different ethnic groups. This is significant as Africans came from a vast geographic region, the West African coastline stretching from Senegal to Angola and in some cases from the south east coast such as Mozambique. A new identity and culture was born that incorporated elements of the various ethnic groups and of European cultural heritage, resulting in fusions such as the Black church and Black English. This new identity was now based on skin color and African ancestry rather than any one ethnic group.
In March 1807, Britain, which largely controlled the Atlantic, declared the trans-atlantic slave trade illegal, as did the United States. (The latter prohibition took effect January 1, 1808, the earliest date on which Congress had the power to do so under Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution.)
By that time, the majority of black people were U.S.-born, so use of the term "African" became problematic. Though initially a source of pride, many blacks feared its continued use would be a hindrance to their fight for full citizenship in the US. They also felt that it would give ammunition to those who were advocating repatriating black people back to Africa. In 1835 black leaders called upon black Americans to remove the title of "African" from their institutions and replace it with "Negro" or "Colored American". A few institutions however elected to keep their historical names such as African Methodist Episcopal Church. "Negro" and "colored" remained the popular terms until the late 1960s.
The term black was used throughout but not frequently as it carried a certain stigma. In his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. uses the terms Negro 15 times and black 4 times. Each time he uses black it is in parallel construction with white (e.g., black men and white men). With the successes of the civil rights movement a new term was needed to break from the past and help shed the reminders of legalized discrimination. In place of Negro, black was promoted as standing for racial pride, militancy and power. Some of the turning points included the use of the term "Black Power" by Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael) and the release of James Brown's song "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud".
In 1988 Jesse Jackson urged Americans to use the term African American because the term has a historical cultural base. Since then African American and black have essentially a coequal status. There is still much controversy over which term is more appropriate. Some such as Maulana Karenga and Owen Alik Shahadah argue African-American is more appropriate because it accurately articulates geography and historical origin. Others have argued that "Black" is a better term because "African" suggests foreignness, despite the long presence of Black people in the US. Still others believe the term black is inaccurate because African Americans have a variety of skin tones. Surveys show that the majority of Black Americans have no preference for whether "African American" or "Black" is employed to describe them, although they also show that there is a slight preference for "Black" in personal settings and "African American" in more formal settings.The appropriateness of the term "African American" is further confused, however, by increases in the number of immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. The more recent African immigrants may sometimes view themselves, and be viewed, as culturally distinct from native descendants of African slaves.
The U.S. census race definitions says a black is a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as "Black, African Am., or Negro," or who provide written entries such as African American, Afro American, Kenyan, Nigerian, or Haitian. However, the Census Bureau notes that these classifications are socio-political constructs and should not be interpreted as scientific or anthropological.
A considerable portion of the U.S. population identified as black actually have some Native American or White ancestry. For instance, genetic studies of African American people show an ancestry that is on average 17–18% European.
One drop rule
Historically, the United States used a colloquial term, the one-drop rule, to designate a black person as any person with any known African ancestry. Legally the definition varied from state to state. Thomas Jefferson had slaves who were legally white (less than 25% Black) and legally slaves (mother was a slave). Outside of the US, some other countries have adopted the practice, but the definition of who is black and the extent to which the one drop "rule" applies varies from country to country.
The one drop rule may have originated as a means of increasing the number of black slaves and been maintained as an attempt to keep the white race pure. One of the results of the one drop rule was uniting the African American community and preserving an African identity. Some of the most prominent civil rights activists were multiracial, and advocated equality for all.
Barack Obama, the first Black President of the United States, was, throughout his campaign, criticized as being either "too black" or "not black enough".
The concept of blackness in the United States has been described[by whom?] as the degree to which one associates themselves with mainstream African American culture and values. To a certain extent, this concept is not so much about skin color or tone but more about culture and behavior.
Blackness can be contrasted with "acting white" where black Americans are said to behave with assumed characteristics of stereotypical white Americans, with regard to fashion, dialect, taste in music, and possibly, from the perspective of a significant number of Black youth, academic achievement.
The notion of blackness can also be extended to non-black people. Toni Morrison once described Bill Clinton as the first black president, because of his warm relations with African Americans, his poor upbringing and also because he is a jazz musician. Christopher Hitchens was offended by the notion of Clinton as the first black president noting "we can still define blackness by the following symptoms: alcoholic mothers, under-the-bridge habits...the tendency to sexual predation and shameless perjury about the same" Some black activists were also offended, claiming Clinton used his knowledge of black culture to exploit black people like no other president before for political gain, while not serving black interests. They note his lack of action during the Rwanda genocide and his welfare reform which some claim led to the worst child poverty since the 1960s along with the fact that the number of black people in jail increased during his administration.
The question of blackness also arose in Democrat Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Commentators have questioned whether Obama, who was elected the first black President of the United States, is black enough, as his mother was white American, and his father was a black Kenyan immigrant. Obama refers to himself interchangeably as black and African American.
Race in Brazil
Afro-Brazilian women during a Candomblé ceremony.
The topic of race in Brazil is a complex and diverse one.A Brazilian child was never automatically identified with the racial type of one or both parents, nor were there only two categories to choose from. Between a pure black and a very light mulatto over a dozen racial categories would be recognized in conformity with the combinations of hair color, hair texture, eye color, and skin color. These types grade into each other like the colors of the spectrum, and no one category stands significantly isolated from the rest. That is, race referred to appearance, not heredity.
There is some disagreement among scholars over the effects of social status on racial classifications in Brazil. It is generally believed that upward mobility and education results in reclassification of individuals into lighter skinned categories. The popular claim is that in Brazil poor whites are considered black and wealthy blacks are considered white. Some scholars disagree arguing that whitening of one's social status may be open to people of mixed race, but a typically black person will consistently be identified as black regardless of wealth or social status.
Race and genetics Admixture in Latin America
Demographics of Brazil
Year White Pardo Black
1835 24.4% 18.2% 51.4%
2000 53.7% 38.5% 6.2%
From the year 1500 to 1850 an estimated 3.5 million Africans were forcibly shipped to Brazil. An estimated 80 million Brazilians, almost half the population, are at least in part descendants of these Africans. Brazil has the largest population of Afro-descendants outside of Africa. In contrast to the US there were no segregation or anti-miscegenation laws in Brazil and as a result intermarriage has affected a large majority of the Brazilian population. Even much of the white population has either African or Amerindian blood. According to the last census 54% identified themselves as white, 6.2% identified themselves as black and 39.5% identified themselves as Pardo (brown)- a broad multiracial category.
A philosophy of whitening emerged in Brazil in the 19th century. Until recently the government did not keep data on race. However, statisticians estimate that in 1835 half the population was black, one fifth was Pardo (brown) and one fourth white. By 2000 the black population had fallen to only 6.2% and the Pardo had increased to 40% and white to 55%. Essentially most of the black population was absorbed into the multiracial category by intermarriage. A recent study found that at least 29% of the middle class white Brazilian population had some recent African ancestry.
Race relations in Brazil
Because of the ideology of miscegenation, Brazil has avoided the polarization of society into black and white. The bitter and sometimes violent racial tensions that divide the US are notably absent in Brazil. However the philosophy of the racial democracy in Brazil has drawn criticism from some quarters. Brazil has one of the largest gaps in income distribution in the world. The richest 10% of the population earn 28 times the average income of the bottom 40%. The richest 10 percent is almost exclusively white. One-third of the population lives under the poverty line, with blacks and other non-whites accounting for 70 percent of the poor.
In the US, black people earn 75% of what white people earn. In Brazil, non-whites earn less than 50% of what whites earn. Some have posited that Brazil does in fact practice the one drop rule when social economic factors are considered. This is because the gap in income between blacks and other non-whites is relatively small compared to the large gap between whites and non-whites. Other factors such as illiteracy and education level show the same patterns. Unlike in the US where African Americans were united in the civil rights struggle, in Brazil the philosophy of whitening has helped divide blacks from other non-whites and prevented a more active civil rights movement.
Though Afro-Brazilians make up half the population there are very few black politicians. The city of Salvador, Bahia for instance is 80% Afro-Brazilian but has never had a black mayor. Critics indicate that US cities that have a black majority, such as Detroit and New Orleans, have never had white mayors since first electing black mayors in the 1970s.
Non-white people also have limited media visibility. The Latin American media, in particular the Brazilian media, has been accused of hiding its black and indigenous population. For example the telenovelas or soaps are said to be a hotbed of white, largely blonde and blue/green-eyed actors who resemble Scandinavians or other northern Europeans more than they resemble the typical whites of Brazil, who are mostly of Southern European descent.
These patterns of discrimination against non-whites have led some to advocate for the use of the Portuguese term 'negro' to encompass non-whites so as to renew a black consciousness and identity, in effect an African descent rule.
In Asia and Australasia
There was a colony of Arab merchants in Canton that received slaves from East Africa. Serge Bilé cites a 12th century text which tells us that most well-to-do families in Canton had black slaves whom they regarded as savages and demons because of their physical appearance. Each Portuguese family in Macau had an average of five or six black male slaves (without counting those slaves' wives and children). Many slaves fled from their masters in Macau and came into China, wrote Matteo Ricci, indenturing themselves there to local Chinese military commanders. Zheng Zhilong and his son Koxinga had the "black guard" most of whom were black Africans who were former Portuguese slaves.
Based on a report in the Guangzhou Daily, there might be as many as 100,000 Africans in Guangzhou, China, a number that the newspaper reports has been increasing at an annual rate of 30 to 40% since 2003.
An 1876 Great Andamanese couple of the Andaman Islands
A young Bonda girl on her way to the market in India.
India and Southeast Asia
The Great Andamanese are one of five black ethnic groups (Adivasi or tribal) native to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; they are among the first inhabitants of what is now India, and are facing extinction. The other four are the Jangil, Jarawa, Onge and Sentinelese. Another isloated population are the Vedda people of Sri Lanka.
In South India there are also several communities of Black African descent, such as the Sheedis/Siddis, specifically the Siddis of Karnataka, who descend from East African slaves. Other ethnic groups in India with dark skin and/or broad facial features are the Bonda, Gondi, Bhil, Dongria Kondha.
The Black Jews of Kerala, whose origins in India date back two if not three thousand years, appear identical to the surrounding Tamil population. For centuries they faced racism from the neighbouring community of White Jews, who excluded them from the Paradesi Synagogue. This apartheid-like situation improved only in the twentieth century with the rise of the "Jewish Gandhi", a local lawyer named Abraham Barak Salem. Most of the Cochin Jews migrated to Israel, where their race makes them stand out and in some cases draws racist comments.
An ethnic Ati woman of the Philippines. The Negritos were the earliest inhabitants of Southeast Asia.
An Indigenous Fijian man
A young Melanesian Vanuatu Pacific Islander boy.
There are several groups of dark-skinned people who live in various parts of Asia, Australia and Oceania who sometimes are referred to as black people. They include the Indigenous Australians, the Melanesians (now divided into Austronesian-speaking populations and Papuans, and including the great genetic diversity of New Guinea), the Semang people of the Malay peninsula, the Aeta people of Luzon, the Ati of Panay. indigenous first nation Fijians and various indigenous peoples sometimes collectively known as Negritos.
By their external physical appearance (phenotype) such people resemble Black Africans with dark skin and sometimes tightly coiled hair. There have been suggestions of a Black African origin. However, in the case of the Andamanese people, a study conducted by the NCBI indicated that the Andamanese people possessed closer affinities with the Southeast Asian population than with the Black African population.
Black people in Europe
Black British population, British African-Caribbean community, and Black Scottish
According to the Office for National Statistics, as of the 2001 census, there are over a million black people in the United Kingdom; 1% of the total population describe themselves as "Black Caribbean", 0.8% as "Black African", and 0.2% as "Black other". Britain encouraged the immigration of workers from the Caribbean after World War II; the first symbolic movement was those who came on the ship the Empire Windrush. The preferred official umbrella term is "black and minority ethnic" (BME), but sometimes the term "black" is used on its own, to express unified opposition to racism, as in the Southall Black Sisters, which started with a mainly British Asian constituency.
France is an ethnically diverse nation, with about 2.5 – 5 million black people.
Italians of African descent
Italy is an ethnically diverse nation with about 755,000 – 1.600.000 million black people.
Immigration to Spain
Ulcinj in Montenegro had its own black community – descendent of the Ottoman slave trade that had flourished here. As a consequence of the slave trade and privateer activity, a considerable number of Ulcinj inhabitants until 1878 were black. The Ottoman Army counted thousands of Black African soldiers in its ranks. The army sent to Balkans during the Austro-Turkish War of 1716–18 included 24,000 men from Africa.
Ivan Gannibal, grandfather of Alexander Pushkin the national poet of Russia
As African states became independent in the 1960s, the Soviet Union offered them the chance to study in Russia; over 40 years, 400,000 African students came, and many settled there. This extended beyond the Soviet Union to many countries of the Eastern bloc.
A cultural classification of people as "black" exists in Russia. Certain groups of people who are ethnically different, and generally darker, than ethnic Russians are pejoratively referred to as "blacks" (chernye), and face specific sorts of social exclusion (see Racism in Russia). Roma, Georgians, and Tatars fall into this category. Those referred to as "black" are from the former Soviet republics, predominantly peoples of the Caucasus, e.g. Chechens. Although "Caucasian" is used in American English to mean "white people", in Russian – and most other varieties of English – it only refers to the Caucasus, not European people in general.
Debates on race
Hamitic and Habesha
According to some historians, the tale in Genesis 9 in which Noah cursed the descendants of his son Ham with servitude was a seminal moment in defining black people, as the story was passed on through generations of Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars. According to columnist Felicia R. Lee, "Ham came to be widely portrayed as black; blackness, servitude and the idea of racial hierarchy became inextricably linked." Some people believe that the tradition of dividing humankind into three major races is partly rooted in tales of Noah's three sons repopulating the Earth after the Deluge and giving rise to three separate races.
The biblical passage, Book of Genesis 9:20–27, which deals with the sons of Noah, however, makes no reference to race. The reputed curse of Ham is not on Ham, but on Canaan, one of Ham's sons. This is not a racial but geographic referent. The Canaanites, typically associated with the region of the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon, etc.) were later subjugated by the Hebrews when they left bondage in Egypt according to the Biblical narrative. The alleged inferiority of Hamitic descendants also is not supported by the Biblical narrative, nor claims of three races in relation to Noah's sons. Shem for example seems a linguistic not racial referent. In short the
Historians believe that by the nineteenth century, the belief that black people were descended from Ham was used by southern United States whites to justify slavery. According to Benjamin Braude, a professor of history at Boston College:
in 18th- and 19th century Euro-America, Genesis 9:18–27 became the curse of Ham, a foundation myth for collective degradation, conventionally trotted out as God's reason for condemning generations of dark-skinned peoples from Africa to slavery.
Author David M. Goldenberg contends that the Bible is not a racist document. According to Goldenberg, such racist interpretations came from post-biblical writers of antiquity like Philo and Origen of Alexandria, who equated blackness with darkness of the soul.
Afrocentrism and Ancient Egyptian race controversy
1820 drawing of a Book of Gates fresco of the tomb of Seti I, depicting (from left): Libyan, Nubian, Asiatic, Egyptians.
A controversy over the skin color and ethnic origins of the ancient Egyptians was sparked as part of the Afrocentric debate. Afrocentrist scholars such as Cheikh Anta Diop contend that ancient Egypt was primarily a "black civilization". One source cited in support of their argument is Herodotus, who wrote around 450 B.C. that "Colchians, Ethiopians and Egyptians have thick lips, broad nose, woolly hair and they are burnt of skin." However, Classical scholar Frank Snowden, Jr. cautions against the reliance on accounts by ancient writers to describe the physical characteristics of other ancient peoples, as they held different connotations from those of modern-day terminology in the West. He also points out that other ancient writers clearly distinguished between Egyptians and Ethiopians.
Keita and Boyce confront this issue in a 1996 article entitled, "The Geographical Origins and Population Relationships of Early Ancient Egyptians". As anthropologists, they point out the danger in relying on ancient interpretation to reveal for us the biological make up of a population. In any case they contend, the relevant data indicates greater similarity between Egyptians and Ethiopians than the former group with the Ancient Greeks.
Ancient Egyptians are often portrayed in modern media as Caucasians, and many people, Afrocentrists in particular, have been critical of this. According to Egyptologists, ancient Egypt was a multicultural society of Middle Eastern, Northeast African, and Saharan influences. Anthropological and archaeological evidence shows that an Africoid element was evident in ancient Egypt, which was predominant in Abydos in the First dynasty of Egypt.