The etymological history of ‘race’ can be traced back to Middle French (a historical division of the French language), in which race described a group of people connected by human descent5. This definition became further generalized in 1496, to mean offspring and descendants5. In the 1500s, the term began to be used to describe a subdivision of a species represented by a number of individuals with particular hereditary characteristics, and was specified in 1558 as a set or class of people sharing the same profession or character5. In the 1600s race as a mechanism for classification continued5. In 1611 race was defined as a group of animals born to the same mother5. The most recent interpretation, coined in 1684, describes a subdivision of mankind based on particular prominent hereditary traits5.
Following the term further back in history, race is connected to the Italian term razza, meaning kind or species5. Razza originated in 1388, but the masculine noun razzo can be found earlier in the year 1300, meaning descent or lineage, usually in reference to a horse5. In 1446 this term encompassed a group of individuals of an animal or vegetable species identified by one or more characteristics which are constant and hereditary5. The origins of the term razza are most commonly traced to two latin roots, ratiō (ratio) and generātiō (generation)5.
The meaning of race is broad, and ranges from a common group of people, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin, to the offspring or descendants, to a breed of animals and plants4,5,6. The most general definitions appear to be: any major divisions into which living creatures may be separated or the offspring or posterity of a person5,6.
Today, race is generally referred to as differentiation or categorization of people on a large scale based on physical traits and typologies6. The meanings and connotations of race have developed and evolved throughout human history. The definition of race during the Middle ages differs greatly from its meaning after the 19th century1,2. In Medieval times, the distinction between people was less systematic1. Bloodlines and descent were acknowledged as defining aspects of identity, but further importance was placed on linguistic, legal, political, cultural and particularly religious characteristics1. However, the development of negative and demeaning behaviour towards Jews during the Middle Ages substantiated the connection between lineage and fundamental personal identity1. The extreme reaction towards those of the Jewish religion can be characterized as inherently racist1.
The concept of race was present in Ancient Greece and Rome, but general inferiority based on body type was not yet prevalent3. It was recognized by Aristotle that pigmentation was strictly hereditary and biologically transmitted, but the more popular belief and understanding was that cultural variation present in humanity was a result of nurture as opposed to nature3.
It was only in the 19th Century that the current interpretation of race began to develop2. Prior to this time, race was interchangeable with “people”2. It was during the 19th century that race was approached in a biological context as it became a popular area of anthropological study 2,6. The preoccupation with the accurate racial distinction instinctively established a hierarchical status of such races2. An early system to distinguish race was established by J.F Blumenbach, titled “De Generis Humani Vanetti” (1775)5. This mode of classification was founded on skin colour and conformation of the head 5. Blumenback divided humanity into five races: American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay and Mongolian, each of which was assigned a relative ranking5. These types of systems of classification created a rift between monogenists, who viewed humanity as comprising a single and generally equal race, and polygenists, who believed that different skin colours indicated a separation of species2.
Race in the context of humanity is a man-made mechanism of unnecessary and superficial classification, which consequently resulted in the false hierarchical superiority of some races over others2, 5 . The difficulty in defining race has excluded it from a modern scientific context, but it persists a social context2,6 . This primitive desire and id driven impulse of humanity for one individual to gain power over another is the sole driving force behind the concept of race in today’s society. This compulsive need to elevate one’s status, and the use of race to do so, has resulted in phenomena such as segregation, genocide and ethnic cleansing due to the presence of racism, xenophobia and nativism.
1."race and minorities." In The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Oxford University Press. (, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Nov. 2012, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/ 9780198662624.001.0001/acref-9780198662624-e-4872
2. "race." In Dictionary of the Social Sciences, Oxford University Press. (, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Nov. 2012, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/ 9780195123715.001.0001/acref-9780195123715-e-1382
3."race." In Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, Oxford University Press. (, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Nov. 2012, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/ 9780192801463.001.0001/acref-9780192801463-e-1896
4. "race." In A Dictionary of World History, Oxford University Press. (, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Nov. 2012, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/ 9780192807007.001.0001/acref-9780192807007-e-3036
5."race, n.6". OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. http://oed.com/view/Entry/157031?rskey=HvsOZo&result=6&isAdvanced=false (accessed November 16, 2012).
6. "race." (, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Nov. 2012, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20111010170739834